ROSENDALE – On February 15 the Rosendale Theatre screened Speaking in Tongues
, a documentary by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider that follows four pioneering American children on a journey to become bilingual at a time when thirty-one states have passed "English Only" laws.
Rondout Valley School District (RVSD) Spanish teacher for grades K-4 and also a New York State representative for the National Network for Early Language Learning, Diana Zuckerman of Rosendale made some opening remarks to the audience: "I am hoping that you will leave here tonight feeling inspired and passionate about the importance for our communities' children to learn foreign languages and about other cultures to help them become better global citizens and that you will begin and continue conversations and urge decision-makers, such as your local school boards and district administrators, to provide and maintain these opportunities for our children beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school and beyond — our children are our next medical professionals, policymakers, voters and neighbors. They are our future."
Those in attendance were also treated to a special Spanish presentation by eight Rosendale Elementary School second grade students prior to the film's screening. In addition, ninth graders Julia Freer and Molly O'Donnell, who speak both French and Spanish, and Andrea Wasylyk, who is fluent in Ukrainian and studies Spanish, were multilingual hostesses for the evening.
Following the film, a panel of local language activists held a Q&A session moderated by Zuckerman. The panelists included Gretchen Kleinsmith, a junior at Rondout Valley High School (RVHS) who began studying language in fifth grade; Theresa Swelha, a parent of three students within the RVSD — two of which began foreign language study in the elementary grades; Jenny Delfini, an elementary level Spanish and French teacher in the New Paltz Central School District (NPCSD); and Kathleen Tobin-Flusser, Vice President of the NPCSD Board of Education.
Zuckerman noted that only two public school districts out of eight in Ulster County begin foreign language learning in elementary grades: NPCSD and RVSD. She said, "Rondout is threatening to eliminate the K-4 Elementary Foreign Language Program, which reaches approximately 800 students in Rosendale, Marbletown, and Kerhonkson. As a result of this program cut, Rondout's foreign language department is going to lose one staff member who teaches French and with only two French teachers in the department, we are probably going to lose our Middle School French program as one French teacher will, most likely, be transferred to the High School."
Zuckerman added that her department had worked extremely hard to build and maintain a successful K-12 foreign language program and said, "This potential loss will be a major loss for the students in our global economy."
Zuckerman feels strongly that the entire community must become involved with the possible loss of a program that develops cultural competency and is critical to prepare young people in an increasingly global society.
"It also allows a child to gain an understanding that it's okay to have similarities and differences — language and bilingualism builds a positive identity for a child," she said, adding, "As our nation grows increasingly diverse and the globe becomes increasingly smaller, there's never been a better opportunity for children to learn to benefit from one another's wisdom and experiences."
Zuckerman presented and shared information from a January 25, 2011 article in Education Week titled, "The National Imperative for Language Learning" and quoted authors Anthony W. Jackson, Charles E. M. Kolb, and John I. Wilson: "Global competence is an area where most American classrooms are falling short. Consider a class of children entering kindergarten in the United States. While their classes may include students from around the world, global issues and cultures will not be regularly woven into their schoolwork. They will probably study only one language — English — until high school, even though they would learn a second language far more easily if they began in elementary school. Meanwhile, 20 out of 25 industrialized countries start teaching world languages in grades K-5, and 21 countries in the European Union require nine years of language study, and International business leaders are warning that American graduates may be technically competent but are increasingly culturally deprived and linguistically illiterate compared with graduates from other countries competing for the same jobs."
The Earlier The Better
Zuckerman encourages parents to watch Changing Brains, a video at changingbrains.org based on research done at the University of Oregon dealing with teaching foreign languages at an early age and its effect on brain function and growth. The content of the video deals with "Brain Plasticity", a term used for the brain's ability to change and grow through experience and how it can be directly affected by learning other languages. Also explained are "sensitive periods" defined as optimum times for learning new things — specifically "language", as early as possible.
Zuckerman notes that "In many of our area's private schools, such as High Meadow, Mountain Laurel and Woodstock Day School, beginning a foreign language in elementary school is the norm and an integral part of their curriculum."
"At Rondout all of the approximately 800 students K-4 learn Spanish for one third of the year and then in sixth grade all students learn French and Spanish," she said, and noted that there was no foreign language program for RVSD's fifth grade.
"We need to bring our children into the world by bringing the world to our children through the study of foreign languages and cultures beginning in elementary school and continuing through high school and beyond," Zuckerman said.