Lawmakers are hoping to give an already successful foreign language program a big boost this legislative session in hopes of significantly increasing the number of "critical needs language" classes taught in Utah classrooms.
"Language skills will be to the 21st century like keyboarding and computer skills were to the 20th century — it's a job skill," said Gregg Roberts, world language specialist for the State Office of Education. "In 10 years from now, students graduating from Utah schools should be able to speak two or three languages."
Critical needs languages as defined by the Department of Defense include Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Farsi — critical world languages in which a shortage exists of fluent professionals.
French, Spanish and Japanese are also considered critical languages, but there isn't a shortage of speakers, so they are not classified "critical needs."
Last year was a landmark year for growth in critical needs language courses available in the state's public high schools.
Two years ago, only three schools offered Chinese classes. Now 22 high schools and six junior highs offer Mandarin courses.
Last year, not one public school in the state offered Arabic. But this year, two classes are being taught and another five are on deck for next fall.
The course-offering leap can be attributed to the Critical Language Program, a $260,000 pilot program created by the Legislature last spring.
Schools that applied and were accepted in the program received a $6,000 stipend per language course to start up the program, plus $100 for each student who completes a critical language course with a C grade or better.
The funding will continue for six years, but then it's up to the school to continue the courses.
Roberts said that when the grants first became available, schools were "coming out of the woodwork" to apply.
So for next year, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he will sponsor legislation to appropriate enough funding to allow 30 more schools to participate.
Currently the state doesn't have a pool of Chinese and Arabic teachers, so for the next few years Utah is working in partnership with China, bringing teachers from China to the state for one to three years to start the programs.
Those teachers will then be replaced by home-grown teachers who are completing their programs at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah's recently established Chinese teaching programs.
In the meantime, other schools are holding Chinese classes through a distance-learning model where a master teacher from BYU is broadcast in class for part of the time and then a paraeducator who is fluent in Mandarin takes over.
BYU officials also recently developed a curriculum for Arabic language courses.
State leaders say the expansion in critical needs language course is not a moment too soon.
"No longer are Utah students competing with students in Colorado, California and Idaho ... we are competing with students in China, Bangladesh and India," said Roberts. "And if Americans continue to be monolingual, we are going to be left out of job opportunities."