Walking through the halls of most high schools, one can hear the sound of foreign languages interspersed with lectures on the scientific method, algebraic equations, and the correct use of adjectives. As business and technology facilitate a more global economy, the languages taught in schools are becoming more diverse. Yet there is a science to choosing which foreign languages to offer, and no two schools are the same.
While many school districts offer foreign language electives at the middle and high school level, independent schools in Fort Thomas go even further, with students learning Spanish from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“A lot of research supports the fact that … the brain is most receptive to foreign languages early in life,” said Gene Kirchner, superintendent of Fort Thomas Independent Schools.
Spanish is part of the curriculum for all elementary students in the district.
“We wanted to make sure that children, even at the kindergarten level, were exposed to a foreign language,” Kirchner said.
Very little English is spoken during the lessons, even with the youngest. Teachers and students use a lot of images and gestures to communicate what they cannot verbally.
“It’s just a unique situation and very fun to watch,” Kirchner said.
Lower secondary students can choose whether or not to continue with a foreign language. If they choose to pursue a foreign language in high school, they have the choice between Spanish or German.
Although credits are not a graduation requirement, students planning to attend a four-year college in Kentucky must take two years of a foreign language in high school.
With more than 90% of Fort Thomas Independent’s student body planning to attend college, very few choose not to study a foreign language, Kirchner said.
Although requirements vary from college to college, Ohio’s core curriculum graduation requirements include five elective credits, some of which may be earned in foreign languages.
“We encourage all students to learn a foreign language,” said Dana Chapman, chair of the Lakota East foreign language department.
Students in grades nine through 12 in the district have the option of studying Spanish, French, Latin or American Sign Language. The district previously offered German but phased it out last year.
Although a study of world languages indicated an interest in Mandarin, the district only offered it for a short time due to low enrollment, Chapman said.
Whichever language students decide to follow, those who study a foreign language benefit in various ways. In addition to providing the opportunity to complete the degree requirements, learning a foreign language can help Lakota students meet the requirements for an honors degree. Most foreign languages offered in the district have also been shown to increase SAT and ACT verbal scores, Chapman said.
Learning a foreign language in high school can help save time and money in college by getting credit early or preparing students for college-level courses, she said.
Like Lakota, the Talawanda School District has explored the potential of a Mandarin language curriculum. However, due to low enrollment, the program did not receive permanent funding and was discontinued. Students in Talawanda have exploratory Spanish and French options at middle school level and can learn either language in high school.
Some students choose to study languages not offered in Talawanda or advanced levels of Spanish and French through the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option Program.
Whether studying a foreign language at secondary or college level, students gain knowledge of the world through this experience, said Nadja Hofmann, chair of the global language department at Talawanda Schools.
“It gives them a perspective on the world in terms of language structures and culture,” she said.
While Mandarin pilots have not led to lasting programs in Lakota or Talawanda, Ross High School has offered the language for the past five years.
The decision was largely due to the globalization of business, said Ross High School principal Brian Martin.
“We just felt that the direction the economy was going, with China becoming kind of a booming international market, that would put our kids in the best position; decades later, it would be a skill that would really benefit them in the job market,” he said.
Of the 926 students at Ross High School, about 112 students—or about 12% of the student population—study Mandarin. About 20 percent take Spanish.
Fairfield City and Mason City schools also offer Mandarin lessons.
While most high schools offer foreign language options in a classroom setting, some offer additional classes online. Although Williamstown Independent Schools in Kentucky only offers Spanish in the traditional classroom, students can take French, German, Latin, or Mandarin classes online. Similarly, Little Miami Local School District in Ohio offers Spanish and French in a classroom as well as German, Japanese, Latin and Chinese online.