¿Cómo se dice "culturally unaware"?

June 15, 2006, midnight | By Becca Sausville | 13 years, 1 month ago

Blair's language program simply misses the point

"Diverse" is the first word most people use to describe Blair. This is to be expected in a school of over 3,000 students representing over 40 countries. Unfortunately, this veritable melting pot of culture does not extend far past the surface — While Blair's foreign language program fulfills county requirements, it does not impart any valuable cultural education.

For students seeking a distinctive, enriching language program, Blair offers few options. Blair offers just four language classes — French, Spanish, Spanish for Spanish Speakers and Latin. Blair's language program is significantly less diverse than other, far more homogenous, schools in the county.

Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC), for example, has 1,675 students, 65 percent of whom are white. The foreign language department at B-CC offers Spanish, French, Latin, Italian, Russian and Chinese. Blair's population is nearly twice that of B-CC, yet we offer half their languages. It's a disparity that is not consistent with Blair's diversity.

Language programs offer a unique opportunity to foster cultural awareness and understanding. In a time when Americans have an international reputation for myopia and ignorance, we could counter this trend by emulating other MCPS high schools and offering a wider variety of languages. Gaithersburg High School currently offers all of Blair's language options, in addition to Russian and Arabic. Blair, despite being the county's largest school, is one of just three high schools countywide that does not offer languages other than French, Spanish and Latin.

But as the old adage goes, quality is better than quantity. In this case, however, students are not accumulating any lasting knowledge of languages. The major case in point is Latin. Joseph Lynch, head of the foreign language department and a Latin teacher, labels Latin a Blair tradition that "serves as a gateway to western culture" through its ties with ancient Roman architecture, government and vocabulary. This is worthy sentiment, but the class is essentially unnecessary; it that takes up time that would be better spent studying a language that occupies a definitive niche in the world or is actually spoken someplace other than Mass or Classics seminars.

Because MCPS's language credit requirements are relatively lenient, many students look for an easy course that won't take over their lives. This is Latin's appeal to many students. While Lynch says that comparing Latin 1 to other introductory language courses is like comparing "apples to oranges," the class draws in many with its limited curriculum and lack of oral exams. This state of mind should be eliminated, as it belies the true role of schooling. Education should not be about earning easy credits for the sole sake of matriculation; it should be about sating curiosity, fostering intellectual growth and encouraging students to understand the world they are going to inherit.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education released a report that highlighted the need for improved foreign language programs. The Jan. 6 report identified "critical need foreign languages," including Arabic, Chinese, Farsi (Persian), Japanese, Korean, Russian and Urdu (spoken throughout Pakistan and India). According to the report, less than one percent of American high school students study any of these languages.

And yet students in China are required to study English. Currently, 200 million students in China are learning English, while out of the 54 million American students, a mere 54,000 study Chinese, according to the Department of Education. Of course, China's population is much greater than that of the United States, but less than one percent of American students study the language, as opposed to the nearly 100 percent of Chinese pupils who study English. This is despite the fact that Mandarin Chinese is the most commonly spoken language in the world, according to the TIME Almanac.

While Lynch and other language teachers understand the need for expansion in the department's offerings, they have met obstacles in finding qualified instructors for Arabic and Chinese classes. This needs to become a priority for the school. In an institution as heterogeneous as Blair, it is essential that the curriculum celebrates our differences in the hope of promoting tolerance and bridging the gap that so often alienates the United States from the rest of the world.

Becca Sausville. Becca is a senior who is keeping the dinosaur dream alive. She loves Silver Chips a lot, possibly more than life itself. More »

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