State of Foreign Language Learning in New York
Dawn Santiago-Marullo entered school in Puerto Rico, she studied
both Spanish and English, and soon thereafter, French as well.
When she was 10 years old, she moved to the United States, where
school was conducted in English only. Now an experienced Spanish
teacher in Rochester, she says, “I’d like to see the day that
our country values languages the way other countries do.”
There are some schools, a small yet growing number of them public,
that offer foreign language instruction in the early grades. Such
a program was established in the Bronxville schools, and the district’s
efforts were recently lauded by the New York State Association
of Foreign Language Teachers (NYSAFLT), of which Santiago-Marullo
is president-elect. While impressed by Bronxville’s effort, of
the NYSAFLT award Santiago-Marullo says, “it’d be great if the
state could do that and we didn’t have to.”
always said, the younger you are the easier it is to learn a language,”
says current NYSAFLT president Joan Militschner. “It’s been shown
that the brain before puberty is much more accepting of another
language,” she adds.
Such elementary-school programs, however, tend to exist in more
affluent areas, such as Bronxville.
hate to see kids lose access to that because they’re not in the
right place at the right time,” laments Santiago-Marullo. It might
seem frivolous for struggling schools in working-class districts
to worry about teaching elementary schoolers French when just
65 percent of high-schoolers in the state were able to pass the
Regent’s Competency reading exam in the 1999-2000 academic year.
Only 67 percent passed the writing test, and a dismal 55 percent
managed to pass the math exam.
Yet skills acquired in learning a foreign language, says Militschner,
can later be applied to another language, even reputedly more
“difficult,” non-European languages such as Chinese and Arabic.
Dr. Ingrid Pufahal, a linguist and author of a language learning
study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education has remarked
that research has also shown that children who learn foreign languages
gain improved cognitive skills and a better understanding of their
own first language.
In other parts of the world, says Santiago-Marullo, it is assumed
“that educated people speak more than one language.” “Our nation,”
she adds, “became complacent about our place in the world and
assumed that the rest of the world would learn English for us,
and now we see that’s not true.” The current focus on international
relations has heightened awareness in the U.S. of the need for
future diplomats and military specialists to learn foreign languages,
and non-government employers are eager to hire bilingual employees
as well. In New York state alone, 630,918 jobs are related to
exports to other countries.
NYSAFLT, explains Militscher, is committed to promoting the study
of foreign languages through public advocacy. She would like “to
really show [students] the importance of learning another language
and show them that it’s not just a school subject but a very practical
tool they can use to enhance their careers and also to enhance
The association holds a May colloquium, a summer institute and
various other professional development activities. Their website,
www.nysaflt.org, lists these resources as well as information
about undergraduate and graduate scholarships and travel grants
for current teachers.#
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