Sixth-graders sample languages of the world Course offers slice of international life

October 08, 1997|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,1997 World Almanac Pub Date: 10/08/97 SUN STAFF

In Anne Arundel County middle schools, sixth-graders can take a buffet-style language class, trying a taste of French, Spanish, Russian, German, even sign language, to see which, if any, they want to study more later.

"The children are not expected to get any kind of proficiency," said Patricia H. Orndorff, the county's foreign-language

specialist. The goals are to "introduce children to the idea that not everyone speaks English to communicate," and "to help children make a decision on whether or not to begin a formal study of a language, and which language," she said.

Students have learned to count, recite poetry, sing songs, and study history, food, customs and geography of the countries in a hodgepodge of a class.

After 20 years of offering the class, the county is testing a new curriculum, but it might not resolve some issues about the class, including whether it is better suited for elementary school students, whether it is too scattered for most middle-schoolers and whether it focuses too much on Western languages.

Still, the class gives Anne Arundel students a taste of the global variety of tongues that exceeds what exploratory language students learn in other parts of the country.

Here's how the class works:

At Central Middle School in Edgewater, teacher Liz Yuan's classroom is decorated with posters of Mexico, Germany, China, Italy and Moscow. One day, she mixes cultural tidbits and language instruction in teaching sixth-graders the word "chifan." Chinese, she says, it means "to eat rice," but it's also the most common way the Chinese say "to eat dinner," not surprising because rice is such a big part of Chinese meals.

Pamela Marquez teaches her students at Glen Burnie's Corkran Middle about the limits cultural stereotypes can impose. They talk about how often the media inaccurately portray Asians as karate experts and Hispanics as gang members.

At Magothy River Middle in Arnold, Dawn Mraz calls out: "verde, amarillo, rosado, negro, gris, blanco, rojo," holding up construction paper in corresponding colors of green, yellow, pink, black, gray, white and red. Then she has her students look up words that English has borrowed from Spanish: adobe, vigilante and burro.

Anne Arundel offers exploratory language in all 18 of its middle schools and has a more extensive program than any other system in the Baltimore area.

Harford County has the program in two middle schools for eighth-graders, and Howard County offers it in a handful of schools. Carroll County and Baltimore City don't offer it at all, and Baltimore County moved it out of all but one middle school and into five elementary schools.

Susan C. Spinnato, who coordinates foreign-language programs in Baltimore County public schools, says that elementary school children are ready for exploratory language and that middle-schoolers are ready to dig into one language.

"It's a more rigorous foreign-language study," she said. "If you begin giving them that taste in elementary, we find that they're ready" in middle school.

Dorothy Goodman, founder of the Washington International School in the district, says middle school is too late to introduce students to foreign language and hope for fluency.

But Anne Arundel's pilot curriculum is designed to make the class challenging for sixth-graders, Orndorff said. Beginning this fall in three middle schools -- Bates in Annapolis, Magothy River and Central -- it's called "World Language Connections."

Teachers have a plan to follow instead of improvising, and students have to put in more work. .

Still, their exposure to any language, challenging or not, is short. The class is on the "A Day-B Day" rotation, where, for example, on Monday, students get exploratory language; Tuesday, they get art; then Wednesday, exploratory language again.

In the 180-day school year, half the days are devoted to the language program.

"Youngsters may develop an awareness of language, but they're not learning, let's say, the language deeply," said Calvin Glover, foreign-language curriculum specialist in Baltimore. Students in the city can take one language throughout all of sixth grade.

The least exposure is to non-Western languages.

The county curriculum lists this timetable for the retooled curriculum:

The majority of time is spent on French, Spanish, Russian, Latin and German (the only foreign languages taught as semester-long classes in county high schools).

Ten days are allowed for a lumped-together "Asian or African Language" section, which could conceivably cover hundreds of languages.

Eleven days are set aside for sign language.

Orndorff says that it's hard to give good instruction in less popular languages and that plans are for teachers to get help from native speakers who will make videotapes of themselves saying numbers, letters, colors and simple dialogue.

The county's lack of instructors for some languages justifies the shorter time devoted to Asian and African languages, said Kim Scott, the mother of a student in Mraz's class.

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