By the time local kindergartners at Baltimore International Academy (BIA) reached their winter break, many were writing beginning sentences right to left in Arabic or up and down in Chinese, according to the school’s principal, John Enriki. The bottom line: “They are speaking [a second] language,” he says. Incidentally, Enriki’s first language is Arabic, his second, French.
In most cases, these Baltimore City charter school kids walked into their classrooms in muggy August knowing nothing but English. Because their parents applied for and won the literal lottery for them to attend school in a setting that immerses children 100 percent in another language during kindergarten and first grade (and 80 to 90 percent from second grade through eighth), they know much more come December than they would if they adhered to a traditional academic model. Starting in second grade, one class period covers English language arts while the rest—math, science and social studies—are conducted in a foreign tongue. The options: Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Russian or French—SCARF, as Enriki terms this grouping—depending on the applicant’s first and second preferences, plus course availability. Each class typically holds 25 slots, but in the 2015-2016 academic year, BIA expanded kindergarten to include 28 new students.
“To us, it’s right for everybody,” Enriki says. “Mostly everybody fits in. Some may not be able to cope—our expectations are high.”
The academy introduced Arabic just last year.
“There is a big demand for it,” says Enriki, although the largest number of applicants request Spanish study, followed by French and Chinese (a tie), then Arabic, and then Russian.
“All students have to learn the Pledge of Allegiance in five languages,” Enriki tells me. “And we have French month, Spanish month and so forth…and all kids are involved in all languages to an extent.”
If this high-concept school strikes you as a somewhat overly optimistic or surreal utopian scenario, you’re probably a reader of a certain age, an American for whom language study was not emphasized during early childhood—and I admit I can relate.
Like many middle-class American kids growing up in the ’80s, I studied one foreign language—in my case, Spanish—for a few years from early high school through college, but I did not master it. A native of San Antonio, Texas, which was 54 percent Hispanic during my later childhood, I heard Spanish spoken regularly—at the grocery, the mall and the movie theater—and as I began my language study, I felt determined to become fluent. I memorized present-past-future-subjunctive conjugations dutifully and earned all A’s; I advanced to a complex reading level but failed to fully evolve into confident conversation. Then, like so many middle-class American kids of yesteryear, I gave up. Today, I’m hard- pressed to remember how to say fork and spoon in Spanish in a Mexican restaurant, which was proven to me recently when my mother quizzed me in front of a Spanish-speaking waiter.
Plenty of young kids attending Baltimore schools in 2016—public and private—have better odds of retention and eventual mastery than I did, not only because younger children retain data much more easily, but because they are given the opportunity to study for a longer period of time and more in-depth—all of this indicative of a shift in American attitudes regarding foreign languages from myopic to globally ambitious.
“There’s an increased awareness on the global stage that being bilingual or even approaching bilingualism means a lot to the students,” says Brian Schiffer, director of social sciences, fine arts and world languages for Baltimore County Public Schools. “We’re really focused on what we call a ‘proficiency model,’ moving away from drilling students on verb conjugations to concentrate on what students can do with the language: conversation, interaction, creating meaning.”
Schiffer’s conversation-first approach echoes that of Enriki, who says his nine-year-old school’s intense immersion plan places an immediate priority on fluid conversation over insular grammar instruction.
At the county level, in BCPS’ newly introduced Passport Program—which will eventually be made available to all students—kids study world languages in “a blended model” beginning in fourth grade, focusing mainly on Spanish “for purposes of utility and continuity,” says Schiffer. Overall, the county offers Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese and German instruction. Latin is available as well, though two of the eight schools that have traditionally offered Latin—Franklin and Hereford—have recently elected to discontinue it.
According to Schiffer, the county’s ultimate goal is to graduate students with “intermediate to high” second language skills. “If a student’s schedule permits, he or she can study a third language in middle or high school. Research indicates they will have a much easier time picking up that third language because they’ve studied a second.”
Kristen Tubman—foreign language department chair at Boys’ Latin—teaches Spanish at the upper level. A linguistic superstar who took a nontraditional route, Tubman, now 36, didn’t seriously embrace Spanish study until she was a 22-year-old college graduate.
“I was split between working in Baltimore and taking a month at a time and immersing myself in other languages and cultures,” Tubman says. “And then a romantic relationship [with someone from Guatemala] helped [my Spanish].”
Tubman says she was a horrible French undergrad student at a college that didn’t emphasize the importance of language study. “But it’s never too late,” she says. “The biggest challenge we have as adults is our embarrassment factor.”
Kids consider language study cool these days, Tubman has noticed—far cooler than they did when she accepted her job at Boys’ Latin eight years ago. She conducts a survey at the start of each new school year to take the temp on kids’ attitudes.
“Sure, some just see the academic requirement,” she acknowledges, “but others say, ‘I really want to be able to communicate with my soccer teammate and my video game friend online.’ They see people out on the street in Baltimore speaking Spanish, and they want to be able to do it.”
Lest the school’s name serve as a misnomer, Latin study is a valued part of the language curriculum, but not its mainstay. In fact, Latin is absolutely required only in seventh grade (unless a student is deemed in need of more basic language instruction in English instead).
“Parents will occasionally ask, ‘Why are you still teaching Latin?’ It’s one class and it’s hard to argue [Latin] wouldn’t be helpful to them moving forward. People will ask: ‘Why don’t you offer a non-Western language?’ It’s a goal of our [small] department to bring that in. We are looking at Chinese.”
For now, Spanish is the most popular language the school offers.
“At the lower school, they all do study some Spanish,” Tubman says. “Overall, Spanish gets the most interest later [in high school], then Latin, then French.”
In middle school, Boys’ Latin interweaves all three languages in varying amounts. Students make a decision in eighth grade—though they’ll have the opportunity to change their minds in ninth—which language they will focus on for at least three full years.
“We hope they will study all four years,” Tubman adds. “Colleges are looking for more advanced language study, much more than they were five years ago. The U.S. for a long time has been behind most countries in the world in language study, but we are starting to realize that.”
Tubman says Boys’ Latin boasts more than a few second-language success stories, including a Latin major who volunteered downtown at a religious Hispanic outreach center and quickly changed his language concentration.
“He learned Spanish through his volunteer work, then went from Latin to AP Spanish during senior year,” she says.
Speaking of legendary language narratives: Baltimore-raised Russian scholar Ben Musachio—now a junior at Stanford University—attended Friends, where he studied Russian with Lee Roby, who teaches Russian 2, 3, 4 and 5. After working with her, Ben placed in fourth-year Russian at Stanford. Make no mistake: Fourth-year college is far, far more advanced than high school level 4, despite their numeric similarity. Last summer, Musachio received funding from Stanford to travel from one end of Siberia to the other.
Additional students of Roby have landed in Russian 4 at Stanford for freshman year, and others in Russian 4 at Brown University. You might say Roby helps these strong students fall in love with the language by way of the Russian culture. Or you might say she helps them get to know the texture and tone of the place.
On a typical afternoon in her Russian 5 class, students sit in Roby’s room—strewn with Russian dolls and authentic tchotchkes—sipping tea from damask cups.
“When I was in fourth and fifth grades, there was an afterschool program called Russian for Fun, created by Miss Roby, and I went to those and they gave us blini, which are like Russian crepes,” explains Russian 5 student Molly Dunn, a senior at Friends. “I thought it was such an interesting culture, even at such a young age.”
Roby, who has taught at Friends for 13 years, says that the school aims to provide education in all of its foreign language classes (the school also offers French, Spanish and Latin) about the sociolinguistics of a culture, “so that students understand behavior in other countries.”
This approach, for Roby, involves a lot of work concerning intonation.
“I use Russian intonation patterns to speak English in the classroom. And I say, ‘How does that make you feel?’ And they’ll often say, ‘You’re screaming at us.’ I tell them, ‘That’s perfectly neutral.’ [Which they can keep in mind for smoother interaction] “when they hear a foreigner speaking English.”
In the spring, each student in Russian 5 will make an 18-day trip to St. Petersburg and live with a local family.
For some other lucky students, of course, second-language learning happens right at home, from day one of their lives.
BCPS eighth grader Margot Deguet Delury is the daughter of a French father and an American mother, and has been traveling to France regularly since she was 12 months old.
“I can read, write and speak in French,” Deguet Delury says. “However, my writing could definitely use some work, so I’ve been studying with my parents.”
At school, however, the teen—who is considering becoming a doctor or lawyer—has opted to study Latin.
“I study Latin because it is the root of all romantic languages,” she says. “Learning any language can help you to succeed, because you understand more about the world around you. I love walking from my grandparents’ apartment [in France] to the local bakery for fresh bread—it makes you feel surrounded by a different world, made up of millions of little differences and billions of new words to learn.”