Walking the halls of most high schools, one can hear the sound of foreign tongues interwoven with lectures on the scientific method, algebraic equations and the proper use of adjectives. As business and technology facilitate a more global economy, the languages taught in schools become more diverse. Yet, there is a science to selecting which foreign languages to offer, and no two schools are exactly alike.
While many school districts offer foreign languages as an elective at the middle and high school level, Fort Thomas Independent Schools go a step further, with students learning Spanish in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“There’s lots of research to support the fact that … the brain is most receptive to foreign languages early in life,” said Gene Kirchner, superintendent of Fort Thomas Independent Schools.
Spanish is part of the curriculum for all elementary students in the district.
“We wanted to make sure children, even at the kindergarten level, were exposed to foreign language,” Kirchner said.
Very little English is spoken during the lessons, even with the younger students. Teachers and students use a lot of images and gestures to communicate what they cannot verbally.
“It’s just a unique situation and very fun to watch,” Kirchner said.
Junior high students can choose whether or not to continue with a foreign language. If they choose to pursue a foreign language through high school, they have the option of Spanish or German.
While the credits are not a graduation requirement, students who plan to attend a four-year university in Kentucky must take two years of a foreign language in high school.
With more than 90 percent of Fort Thomas Independent’s student population planning to attend college, very few elect not to study a foreign language, Kirchner said.
Although requirements vary from one college to another, the Ohio Core Curriculum graduation requirements include five elective credits, some of which can be acquired through foreign languages.
“We encourage all students to take a foreign language,” said Lakota East Foreign Language Department Chair Dana Chapman.
Ninth- through 12-graders in the district have the option to study Spanish, French, Latin or American Sign Language. The district previously offered German but phased it out last year.
Although a world language study indicated interest in Mandarin, the district only offered it for a short period due to low enrollment, Chapman said.
Regardless of which language students decide to pursue it, those who study a foreign language benefit in a variety of ways. In addition to providing an opportunity to fulfill graduation requirements, taking a foreign language can help Lakota students meet the requirements for an honors diploma. Most foreign languages offered in the district also have been shown to increase SAT and ACT verbal scores, Chapman said.
Taking a foreign language in high school can help save time and money in college by getting credits out of the way early or preparing students for college-level courses, she said.
Like Lakota, Talawanda School District explored the potential for a Mandarin language program. However, due to low enrollment, the program did not receive permanent funding and was discontinued. Talawanda students have exploratory Spanish and French options at the middle school level and can take either language in high school.
Some students elect to study languages not offered at Talawanda or advanced levels of Spanish and French through the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option program.
Whether studying a foreign language at the high school or college level, students gain world knowledge from the experience, said Talawanda Schools World Languages Department Chair Nadja Hofmann.
“It offers them a perspective about the world in terms of language structures and culture,” she said.
While Mandarin pilots did not lead to lasting programs at Lakota or Talawanda, Ross High School has offered the language for the past five years.
The decision was largely due to globalization in business, said Ross High School Principal Brian Martin.
“We just felt that the direction the economy was going, with China becoming kind of a burgeoning international market, that would put our kids in the best position; decades down the line, it would be a skill that would really benefit them in the job market,” he said.
Of Ross High School’s 926 students, about 112 students -- or about 12 percent of the student population -- are studying Mandarin. About 20 percent take Spanish.
Fairfield City Schools and Mason City Schools also provide Mandarin classes.
While most high schools have some foreign language options in a classroom setting, some offer additional classes online. Although Williamstown Independent Schools, in Kentucky, offers only Spanish in the traditional classroom, students can take French, German, Latin or Mandarin courses online. Similarly, Little Miami Local School District, in Ohio, offers Spanish and French in a classroom setting as well as German, Japanese, Latin and Chinese online.