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Developing our world languages 'travel team'

The 2014-15 LOSD school year is the first time district seventh graders can take a full year of a modern world language, complementing curriculum additions at the primary level for Spanish immersion and in secondary schools for Mandarin Chinese. But consider the athletes in our community who have access to year-round competitive teams and summer camps; the “all-star” or “travel team” players arrive at middle school with skills acquired during the season and continuously honed in the off-season. Learning the skills at age 12 doesn’t leave you off the team, but it may leave you on the bench. Will our rising world language “all-stars” be engaging in similar activities this off-season to become as proficient as their athlete counterparts?

Parents don’t have to excel at the sports their children play or speak the languages their children study. Most coaches/teachers appreciate the supportive, sideline presence of adults who fundraise for team travel and chaperone trips. Immersion experiences can be equally shared by the language learners and those observing the culture. You don’t need to speak Spanish, for example, to support those in Cabo San Lucas affected by the devastation wreaked during Hurricane Odile in mid-September. Faith-based, non-government organizations (NGOs) and service groups have opportunities to travel back to Mexico’s Baja peninsula and aid in the rebuilding. How will you spend your Spring Break this year?

For our high school language scholars (ages 15-18), the application window is open until Oct. 30 for the 2015-2016 National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). It’s a merit-based, full scholarship from the U.S. State Department that sends American high school students abroad for a summer or full year of intense language study. NSLI-Y offers programs for seven languages deemed “critical languages” by the State Department. These are languages not commonly taught in American schools but are in high demand for many government or international jobs. They include Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian and Turkish. There is no language prerequisite for NSLI-Y. The program accepts a range of proficiencies, from beginners to advanced learners. Previous travel experience is also not required.

As our high school juniors consider their college choices, some are concerned by the Sept. 24 front-page headline in The Oregonian, “Oregon student debt doubles in a decade.” The article quoted Jay Kenton, interim president of Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, who said that students increasingly “question the value proposition of higher education. They see people who’ve gotten a degree and are now $30,000 in debt and back in the unemployment line.” But juniors can better target post-graduation job opportunities if they apply for college understanding their skill sets.

Oregon language scholars have access to two in-state Language Flagship programs: the Russian Flagship program at PSU and the Mandarin Flagship program at U of O. In addition to graduating with professional-level proficiency, Flagship scholars receive career counseling, introductions to government and private employers and internship opportunities. Also note that China is Oregon’s number one trade partner.

Opening up full-year modern language classes for our seventh graders is a solid first step toward developing the potential of our district’s language learners. Parents can support their students’ academic risk-taking by encouraging them to enroll in Spanish immersion, seventh-grade Spanish I or freshman-year Mandarin I. Teachers and administrators need to identify talent and encourage enrichment through partnerships with faith-based, NGO and local service groups. Let’s give new meaning to the “travel team.”

Carolyn J. Heymann is an LOSD parent who served on the program committee in 2006-08 that advocated for adding a sixth full year of language. Her daughter Allison (LHS 2012) studied Arabic through an NSLI-Y summer program in Egypt and is currently in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.

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