Thu., October 8, 2009 10:28am (EDT)

Foreign Language Teachers Take Budget Hits
By Orlando Montoya
Updated: 5 years ago

SAVANNAH, Ga.  —  
Yun-Ching Lin teaches Chinese at Savannah's Johnson High School.  The Savannah school district recently won an award for supporting foreign languages.  Other districts, however, haven't been as supportive.  (photo Orlando Montoya)
Yun-Ching Lin teaches Chinese at Savannah's Johnson High School. The Savannah school district recently won an award for supporting foreign languages. Other districts, however, haven't been as supportive. (photo Orlando Montoya)
Sprechen sie Deutch? Parlez-vous français?

Despite Georgia's increasing global ties, these and other questions are falling off the curriculum in many Georgia schools. Blame it on familiar themes in public education. Faced with budget cuts and testing that emphasizes core academic subjects, foreign language teachers are getting the boot.

At Savannah's Johnson High, however, the Chinese teacher, Yun-Ching Lin, and seven of her most advanced students are blissfully unaware of the situation.

Lin's classroom isn't plastered with Chinese kitsch. There are no pandas, Great Walls or temples.

There are, however, thousands of Chinese words. Lin walks between the desks and behind her students as they use some of these words in reviewing a homework assignment. The students painstakingly pronounce every syllable, with their teacher right with them.

"What time is dinner on Sunday?" "What is your favorite sport?" It's not enthralling conversation, but it's essential for learning a language that's increasingly important in global commerce.

Johnson High is one of only a handful of Georgia K-12 schools to offer Mandarin. It's been doing so for three years.

"The first year, I got five students," Lin says. "And now, the number is up to 48 students."

In Savannah, all high school graduates are required to have at least some foreign language. But Savannah is unusual. Marty Abbot of the Washington-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages says, schools across the nation are cutting back on their language classes.

"The economic situation has caused school systems to face such dire budget situations that they are having to make some very tough choices," Abbot says.

In Georgia, many districts are struggling to keep foreign languages. Abbot says, given global trade and how foreign languages boost standardized test scores, cutting the classes now is short-sighted.

"People who make those kinds of decisions are not looking at the skills that our students today are going to need in the future," Abbot says.

It's hard to tell how many foreign language teachers Georgia's lost. The state doesn't count them. But Atlanta public schools alone have cut more than sixty. Foreign language teachers say, it's a statewide problem.

The state does, however, keep track of how many kids are taking foreign languages. Elizabeth Webb oversees foreign language programs for the state Department of Education.

"Up until this year, our programs have come through very well," Webb says. "We will have to see the figures from this year to see if we have taken some hits."

"And it could be that we take a temporary hit," Webb says. "I think if we take a hit in enrollment, that it will be a temporary one due to the current state of the economy and not due to policy changes."

Foreign language teachers say, they expect enrollment to fall with a new high school graduation policy. For this year's ninth and tenth graders and all those who follow, foreign language is only an option, unless a local district, like Savannah, requires it.

Charles Neidlinger of Savannah's foreign language department says, the local schools exceed the state standard because the city wants to face the world.

"Savannah is known for its tourism and also the ports," Neidlinger says. "It's not uncommon for the students to look around and hear different languages."

Of course, it also helps to have financial support. The salary of one of Savannah's two Chinese teachers is partially paid by the Chinese government.