Foreign Languages are Essential to Middle School Curriculum

The foreign language department celebrates the opening of the new language lab.

The foreign language department celebrates the opening of the new language lab.

Sydney Gillis

The foreign language department celebrates the opening of the new language lab.

As the town of Walpole tries to manage its budget and reduce its debt, cuts are being made throughout different aspects of the town. The school system is taking the brunt of the cuts, with classes and teachers being eliminated. However, deciding exactly what should be cut is proving to be a challenge for town officials and citizens. Making budget cuts while maintaining the welfare of the town is a difficult task. Seeing as the town needs to save money somewhere, it has been suggested that all foreign languages will no longer be available at the middle school level. By providing students with the option to take a foreign language only in high school, the town would diminish students’ opportunities, tarnish the reputation of its education system, and fall behind surrounding school systems.

Although it is necessary for Walpole to save money, the methods to do so should not result in the town essentially moving backward. In 2008, Spanish teacher George Watson won the Teacher of the Year Award for the state of Massachusetts. At that time, the future of languages within the Walpole school system seemed to be moving forward. Watson’s goal was to promote global learning, starting with courses at the high school. At the beginning of this year, his goal was becoming a reality with the installation of the new language lab, which was dedicated to Watson, and the creation of the Global Studies Program. However, the opposite seems to be true now as discussion of offering languages only at the high school level is emerging.

The work Watson has done in the language wing has been essential to its development, and if languages are not available in middle schools, his work will almost become a waste. Department head Lisa Osborne said, “Mr. Watson would be very disappointed. We have made a lot of progress and we are trying to build programs.” However, the Foreign Language Department will actually retrogress if the program is cut from the middle schools. All level five languages, including Spanish and French Advanced Placement classes, would be eliminated from the curriculum. Other language courses such as Mandarin, Latin, and German will also suffer. A student interested in one of these courses would usually take it as a second language, in addition to the one he or she started in middle school. However, without the level one foundation of a language already instigated in middle school, “students might be too afraid to take multiple languages,” says Mrs. Osborne. Currently, there are 147 students enrolled in two foreign languages–and this number might drop if languages are no longer in the middle school. Learning one foreign language can be intimidating enough to students, but taking on multiple introductory language courses at the same time might seem impossible to many, causing some languages at the high school to suffer.

Not only would eliminating languages from the middle school affect the foreign language department’s success, it would also negatively impact students when it comes time to apply for college. For example, Mrs. Osborne noted that “for seniors applying to competitive colleges, if their transcript only says ‘French 1, 2, 3, and 4,’ that will weaken their transcript in relationship to those who have French 5 on there too.” In addition to their applications, students’ overall understanding of their target language will be tremendously weakened: “the younger a child is, the more open they are. Older adolescent brains do not absorb languages as well,” said Osborne. Younger students are generally more excited about learning new languages, and the middle schools are more equipped to serve that enthusiasm with time for arts and crafts, culture projects, and field trips. Mrs. Osborne observed that, with the high school’s curriculum, “we cannot take the time out for fun things,” and that might inhibit a student’s enthusiasm for a language.

Unlike Walpole, many surrounding towns are taking advantage of the benefits of teaching languages at a younger age. Sharon, for instance, has implemented a Foreign Language Exploratory Program, or FLEX program. This program consists of three 8-week cycles in which students are provided with 20 minute explorations of Chinese, French, and Spanish. They are given assignments outside of school in order to practice the language by themselves. According to the FLEX brochure, the program’s goal is to “provide a safe and engaging environment where students will be able to gain exposure to a new language as well as develop an interest in the culture and the people who speak the languages.” The FLEX program in Sharon allows students to form an enthusiasm for the language at a relatively early age–something that students at Walpole will never be able to do if languages are eliminated in the middle schools.

If languages are cut from the middle school curriculum, Walpole will fall far behind surrounding towns such as Sharon. Mrs. Osborne said, “languages are the fifth academic core, so to a parent of a middle school student, 20% of academic programs will be missing.” So, in addition to weakening the language department and students’ understandings of languages, eliminating middle school languages will also make the town less appealing. Walpole’s education system is starting to move backward in an effort to save money, while most are moving forward by placing language courses in elementary schools. This digression would be off-putting to prospective home-buyers–especially parents–and the town could lose revenue in the housing market. Although eliminating languages in the middle school would initially save money, the long term effects would result in students with missed opportunities, and home-buyers potentially excluding Walpole from their searches because of an insufficient education system in relation to neighboring towns.

While it is necessary for Walpole to save money, cutting languages from the middle school is not the way to do so. The long term negative impacts it would have will far outweigh any positive outcomes. Students will be deprived of developing strong interests in other cultures, Watson’s work in the language department will nearly be undone, and Walpole as a whole will become less appealing. The purpose of learning a foreign language entails more than speaking it; it involves becoming open to, and understanding new cultures. However, if children are not introduced to languages at a young age, they will not be able to form deep interests in them. Cutting languages from the middle school will backtrack on years of hard work from the language department in the Walpole school system. Osborne said, “there was a time when there was a committee to put languages in the elementary schools. Never would we have dreamed to be fighting to keep them in the middle schools.”