Should districts stop teaching Western European languages in favor of Asian languages and Arabic?
Check out the foreign language offerings in most Bergen County districts, and you'll be sure to find the old favorites -- French, Spanish, and sometimes German and Latin.
But in a world where China is an economic powerhouse and the federal government desperately needs Arabic and Farsi speakers, far fewer schools offer courses in the languages.
No up-to-date statistics exist on how many schools in the state or county offer non-traditional languages, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Education. But a 2005 department report said fewer than 5 percent of state high schools offer Russian, Chinese or Japanese.
Few educators would argue against adding new foreign languages to a school curriculum or for decreasing the number of language options available to students. Still, some schools are moving forward with non-traditional language instruction, while others have added Italian or Latin when they had a chance to beef up their curriculums. Here's why.
The schools that have added or plan to add non-traditional languages in recent years have overwhelmingly chosen Mandarin Chinese. Officials said learning Chinese will afford their students better career opportunities.
"I don't think in the future when you're talking about business, you can exclude China or any other Asian nation," said Pascack Valley Regional Superintendent Benedict Tantillo.
The federal government has given grants to Pascack Valley, Fair Lawn, Fort Lee and Northern Valley Regional High School to start Chinese programs. Federal dollars are also available for Hindi, Russian, Farsi, Arabic and Korean. The state also encourages teaching those languages, and Rutgers University offers a fast-track certification program for Chinese teachers.
At the same time, some schools are getting rid of classes in more traditional Western European languages, especially German. Pascack Valley ended German instruction and the Bergen County Academies is also phasing it out. After a survey showed that 19 percent of students want to learn Chinese, the Academies decided to add Mandarin, said Jennifer Lee, an Academies spokeswoman.
In Clifton, where the student body speaks 68 languages at home, Janina J. Kusielewicz, supervisor of basic skills and bilingual education, said fewer students are enrolling in German and French. The district may soon survey students to gauge their interest in an Asian language or Arabic.
In some cases, changing demographics have encouraged changes.
Mercedes Gil, bilingual program manager for the Englewood schools, said parents have requested the district teach Arabic, a request she thinks is due at least in part to the city's sizable Arab community.
Over time, students who do not share the ethnic background of a non-traditional language may start to show interest. Ridgewood world languages supervisor Joan Lipkowitz said that more Caucasian students have begun signing up for the Chinese classes the district has offered for nearly 20 years, which used to attract mostly Asian-American students.
Some districts have found that adding a non-traditional language is easier in theory than in practice.
Patrick Fletcher, superintendent of the River Dell Regional School District said the district tried to introduce Italian and Mandarin Chinese last year. There were enough students to fill only one Mandarin Chinese class, and the district could not find a teacher willing to teach part time.
The Italian class has been very popular, however, with five full sections this year, according to River Dell High School Principal Lorraine Brooks. Brooks said she would like to try offering an Asian language again but would hope to start in elementary school to give students a shot at fluency and entice them to continue learning the language in upper grades.
Teaneck also had a chance to add a language this year and chose Latin, the most traditional language of all. Dave Bicofsky, a spokesman for the district, said parents asked for Latin.
"I'm told if you can really get a good grounding in Latin, you can do well in just about any other language," Bicofsky said.
Many educators, even in districts that offer non-traditional languages, say districts should not phase out Western European languages even if the marketplace hungers for proficiency in other languages.
"I don't think the Romance languages should ever disappear," said Fair Lawn Superintendent Bruce Watson, whose district added Chinese this year. "As many as we can teach, we should teach."
Educators also say it may be worthwhile to teach a language like Italian if many students claim Italian heritage. Rich Vespucci, a spokesman with the state Department of Education, said teaching languages with which a student identifies culturally may spark an interest that encourages the student to learn more languages in the future.
"If it's a language or culture that's in the community, that opens the door for learning and being interested in other languages," Vespucci said.