Foreign or bilingual language instruction?

A new law in Illinois is reportedly galvanizing foreign language instruction initiatives in the state. According to this law, students who master more than one language may be eligible for a “Seal of Biliteracy” on their diplomas.

Chicago Public Schools expects to announce its plan for language instruction next month. Other districts have begun instituting language programs; Glen Ellyn School District’s plan, which has yet to be reviewed, requires students to attain an “intermediate high” level by graduation. The general initiative, which began in California, has been spreading around the country.

The Chicago Tribune explains:

At the Illinois State Board of Education, Reyna Hernandez is the assistant superintendent for the Center for Language and Early Childhood Development. State officials, she said, realize that students aren’t building the language skills they need to thrive in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural world.

How can the world be “increasingly” multilingual and multicultural, unless new languages and cultures are being added at a rapid rate? (There are not, as far as I know.) What’s meant here, I think, is that countries, cities, neighborhoods are becoming more culturally diverse, and more languages are spoken in a given geographical region than before.

If that is what Hernandez and other state officials mean, then priority will likely go to languages spoken in the area (including English). To me this sounds more like a bilingual (or second-language) education initiative than a foreign language initiative. Last year, Joanne wrote about how her old high school was going bilingual; this may have been an early move in the initiative’s direction.

Foreign and bilingual language instruction have somewhat different purposes, content, and methods. When you study a “foreign” language, your purpose is to come to learn words, phrases, grammar, idiom, and literature of a language not in your midst or of your time–and not initially familiar to you. You may do so for a wide range of reasons: to enlarge your understanding, to study literature, to prepare for diplomatic work, to travel without depending on interpreters, etc.

When, in the context of bilingual or second-language instruction, you study a language that is widely spoken in your geographical area, your goals may be different. You may be striving for increased proficiency in a language you already speak. You may wish to communicate better with customers or associates. You may want the language for a job. You may also seek to do the “foreign language” things–things that bring in contact with distant times and places–but your main goal is to deal with everyday situations and people.

There’s lots of overlap, of course, since a language is a language, and study is study. One can learn Spanish in Malaga, Santiago, or San Francisco. Literature involves the everyday; Pablo Neruda’s Odes are all about ordinary (and extraordinary) objects, and everyday conversation has rhythm and beauty. A strictly practical language course can lead to literary study and vice versa.

In addition, foreign language study can benefit from local resources and expertise. For many languages, such as Russian, the opportunities for practice are much more extensive than they were 30 years ago.

Also, the concept of “foreignness” makes less sense now than it once did. Some find the concept itself objectionable, since (in their view) it involves treating the “foreign” language or culture as the “other”–as something alien and appropriable. I disagree–but that’s a topic for another time.

Still, from the various hints in news articles,  it seems that officials are using the phrase “foreign language instruction” to mean “bilingual programs.” Whatever one thinks of either, officials should state what they mean.


Note: this is my last guest post for Joanne Jacobs (for this particular stint). Thanks to Joanne for inviting me back to blog, and to Darren for being a terrific co-blogger.


Who gets in? Feds probe Chicago schools

Chicago’s top public schools are supposed to admit students on the basis of a lottery (magnet schools) or aptitude (“gifted” and selective-enrollment schools).  However, some parents charge that money money and connections open the schoolhouse doors to less-qualified students. Now federal investigators are looking into enrollment practices in the district, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Competition to get into the city’s premier selective enrollment schools is fierce. Every year thousands of students apply for hundreds of openings at the schools considered the crown jewels of the city’s public school system.

. . . The district has long allowed magnet school principals to handpick up to 5 percent of their students. Last year, they extended that right to principals at the nine selective enrollment high schools, even though some principals acknowledged they were already doing it. The principals can consider only extenuating circumstances such as a special talent or family crisis, not the applicants’ political ties.

But whispers have long swirled that some students get spots in these top-flight schools not by chance or merit, but by whom their parents know or how much money they make.

Responding to the Tribs’ Clout Goes to College series, federal prosecutors also are seeking evidence that former Illinois “Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his power brokers” demanded and received special treatment for well-connected applicants to the University of Illinois and other state universities.

Fat city

MeMe Roth’s crusade against cupcakes is driving P.S. 9 to the brink, reports the New York Times. The Upper West side mother, who runs National Action Against Obesity, is furious about “the cupcakes that come out for every birthday, the doughnuts her children were once given in gym, the sugary Fun-Dip packets that some parent provided the whole class on Valentine’s Day.”

The Roth kids are supposed to put “junk food” in a plastic container, but this went wrong when a teacher handed out juice pops.  Roth sent one of her vituperative e-mails. It all culminated with a suggestion the family request a “health and safety transfer.”

. . . Both parents left feeling they were being pushed out of P.S. 9, which they perceive as exhausted by Ms. Roth’s intense lobbying for, among other things, permission slips for any food not on the official lunch menu. It would not be the first time: The Roths previously lived in Millburn, N.J., where, after Ms. Roth waged war on the bagels and Pringles meal served to kids at lunch, received e-mail from one member of the P.T.A. that said, “Please, consider moving.”

. . . The police were called to a Y.M.C.A. in 2007 when she absconded with the sprinkles and syrups on a table where members were being served ice cream. That was Ms. Roth who called Santa Claus fat on television that Christmas, and she has a continuing campaign against the humble Girl Scout cookies, on the premise that no community activity should promote unhealthy eating.

The Roths had better not move to Chicago: Nachos rule Chicago public schools, reports a Tribune blog (via This Week in Education).

In today’s Tribune we look at the No. 2 most served entree to Chicago Public School students: nachos. When did nachos become an entree, much less an acceptable entree to serve daily to some of the most obese kids in the nation?

Nachos are a choice on high school menus every day, often served with tater tots and chocolate milk.

I’m a Type 2 diabetic from an all-diabetic family, so I know the challenges of living in a world of unhealthy goodies. But the key to good nutrition is a balanced diet. Going nuts over an occasional cupcake or the need to say, “No thanks” to a juice pop is just nuts.

I wonder how old “MeMe” was when she decided to spell her name that way?

Dems to voucher kids: No hope for you

Some of Sasha and Malia Obama’s classmates at Sidwell Friends may lose their scholarships — unless President Obama stands up to congressional Democrats who are trying to kill school vouchers in D.C. It’s a double standard, writes William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal: Private school is OK for liberal Democrats’ children but not for low-income minority kids.

Like the Obama girls, Sarah and James (Parker) attend the Sidwell Friends School in our nation’s capital. Unlike the Obama girls, they could not afford the school without the $7,500 voucher they receive from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. Unfortunately, a spending bill the Senate takes up this week includes a poison pill that would kill this program — and with it perhaps the Parker children’s hopes for a Sidwell diploma.

Known as the “Durbin language” after the Illinois Democrat who came up with it last year, the provision mandates that the scholarship program ends after the next school year unless Congress reauthorizes it and the District of Columbia approves. The beauty of this language is that it allows opponents to kill the program simply by doing nothing. Just the sort of sneaky maneuver that’s so handy when you don’t want inner-city moms and dads to catch on that you are cutting one of their lifelines.

If the Parker children can’t afford Sidwell, their district-run choice is Roosevelt High, where most students fail to reach proficiency in reading or math.

The Dems are paying off the the teachers unions by destroying the voucher option, editorializes the Washington Post.

Why wouldn’t Congress want to get the results of a carefully calibrated scientific study before pulling the plug on a program that has proved to be enormously popular? Could the real fear be that school vouchers might actually be shown to be effective in leveling the academic playing field?

If D.C. public schools aren’t good enough for the Obama children — or for the children of Congress members — poor kids shouldn’t be trapped in the system,  argues the Chicago Tribune.

Update: Education Secretary Arne Duncan came out in support of the D.C. voucher program, telling AP:  “I don’t think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they’re happy and safe and satisfied and learning.”
Mickey Kaus thinks the Obama administration “blinked” on vouchers. However, Edspresso points out that Duncan called for letting students stay in their current schools, not for allowing more students to enter the program, which serves 1,700 low-income students in the District. (Only a few attend very expensive, elite schools like Sidwell.)