For Caesar Rodney High School junior Brian Moore, taking an Arabic language class is a chance to get a head start on his future.
The 16-year-old, who has already studied French, aspires to join the Air Force because he wants to follow in his father's footsteps. He plans to study linguistics in college. He figures learning Arabic will come in handy.
"Also, it's an interesting language," Moore said.
If Gov. Jack Markell is successful, Delaware students will begin learning a second language much earlier than Moore -- as early as kindergarten. The effort is meant to help Delaware graduates be more competitive in the workforce.
"Delaware needs a new generation of people who have advanced language skills," said Gregory Fulkerson, education associate for world languages and international education at the Delaware Department of Education.
State plans call for 20 schools over the next five years to launch immersion-language programs for students in kindergarten and first grades. Four first-year programs were selected this month. They will start instruction in languages identified as being key in the workforce: Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. In 2012, about $1.9 million is budgeted for the program. Another $1.9 million is in the governor's proposed fiscal 2013 budget.
Delaware students lag behind peers in Asia and Europe because few have access to an early start to second languages, according to the state Department of Education. This year's freshman class will be the first in Delaware that must meet a new graduation requirement that mandates two credits, or about two school years, of study in foreign language. The state plans a performance-based assessment system so officials can track student progress.
There's an economic advantage for states that have residents who know more than one language, Fulkerson said. Recently, a company decided against locating in Delaware, opting instead for Brussels. When state leaders asked why, they were told that the company chose Brussels because the average resident there knows three languages. The average Delawarean knows one.
While current freshmen will have to take a second language to graduate from high school -- a state mandate from 2006 -- parents will have a choice as to whether their elementary school-age children take part in the early language immersion programs. Fulkerson predicts there will be more interested than there are seats in the classes.
In Utah, a similar program proved so popular that officials had to institute a lottery system, he said.
Experts say the best time to learn a second or third language is as a child.
Children's brains are more malleable, and they don't have the social inhibitions of adults who are learning a second language, said Roberta Golinkoff, a University of Delaware professor and author of the book "How Babies Talk." Research shows that children who know another language have better executive function, which leads to better educational outcomes. Also, those who know another language tend to have a broader worldview, she said.
"You get a whole different worldview if you have another language," Golinkoff said. "And, of course, that makes you more culturally aware -- this is at a time when the world is the size of a walnut."
One expected challenge the state will have to solve as it rolls out more language programs is attracting enough qualified teachers. The state has an agreement with China for a teacher- exchange program, but that's not a long-term solution, Fulkerson said. Work visas for the Chinese teachers expire after two years, he said. The state is working with the University of Delaware to find ways to increase the number of college graduates who are able to provide language instruction, he said.
The high school graduation requirement and the new elementary effort are linked in Markell's world language expansion project. The state wants to start language instruction young so students will be able to take more advanced courses in high school. This will give schools the ability to encourage students to study a third language.
Students at Caesar Rodney High in Camden are exposed to both Arabic and Chinese languages in a room that's filled with decorations from countries in which those languages are spoken. Arabic teacher Melissa Mouschref is a native speaker of the language. Her parents were immigrants. On Friday, she worked with students, helping them with a grammar lesson.
Student LaMaya Hill, 15, said she had taken Spanish classes previously, but chose to take Arabic because she hopes to work as a translator. For classmate Megan Haugh, 18, the class was the chance to move beyond her three years of work in Latin.
"It's such an interesting language," Haugh said. "It's pretty hard, but I like it."