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Language Classes Popular in America's Public Schools

As a nation of immigrants, American society is a polyglot. The diversity of spoken languages can be heard clearly in the nation's schools. Students often come from different national and cultural backgrounds. Learning a new language is a way of bridging those differences. Kent Gardens Elementary School, located in the northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., is one of hundreds of American public schools now offering special foreign-language training programs. Mohamed Elshinnawi has a report.

More than 900 young students arrive at Kent Gardens Elementary every morning to take part in a system-wide language training program known as partial immersion. Its aim is to help students become fluent in a foreign language of their choice. In this particular school, French is the language being offered.

"Half of the day is spent with a French immersion teacher, where they learn math and science in French and the other part of the day is spent with the English teacher where they are taught social studies and language arts in English," says Annie Dwyer, a 5th grade French teacher.

Students not only receive instruction in the French language but are also exposed to the cultures of French-speaking countries. They interact with teacher-interns from France. Some students host the French interns in their homes, establishing personal cultural links.

Students at Kent Gardens Elementary come from many different cultural backgrounds, and they give many different reasons for wanting to be fluent in a foreign language.

"I am actually Muslim," says Rosa Ahmat, "so my parents want me to learn about other cultures and people from other places."

Anwar Mendes says he expects to travel a lot in the future. "So I will have a pretty good chance of meeting a person that speaks French."

"It will be very hard to get a good job if you do not know the other languages," says Neha Rana.

Many educators support that belief. They say immersing young students in foreign language study for at least half of their school day gives them the mult-lingual skills they'll need to succeed in an increasingly global economy.

There are other benefits as well. "It expands the mind of the child and also gives them a greater cultural awareness of other cultures and makes them more tolerant of others' differences," says 6th grade French teacher Christine Bedoret.

Some critics of immersion programs believe that spending half the school day learning in a foreign language could negatively impact students' fluency in English. Richard Gordon, a 6-grade English and social studies teacher, disagrees. "One thing I noticed when I teach my students coming from the foreign language program is that they are very oral, they are very vocal, and they can express themselves very well in my English classes."

But French teachers like Francoise Brottet admits there are challenges involved in the immersion program. "Since they do not understand everything (we say), we have to find creative and different ways to teach them."

Young students have their own challenges. "It can be a bit confusing at times, because you learn the terms in French and sometimes some tests and homework you get are written in English," says 6th grader Kimia Zadegan.

Over the past decade, hundreds of American public schools have begun offering partial immersion programs to teach students Latin, Spanish, German, Japanese and many other languages.

Dr. Robyn Hooker, Kent Gardens' Principal, says that many of the students at the school are already multi-lingual, as well as multi-cultural, when they enroll. "Many of the children in our school, because it is an international school, come to us speaking perhaps two or three and in some instances four languages, so it becomes a part of our responsibility to prepare children for global society — and that always includes the languages."

Hooker believes the training students are receiving at Kent Gardens — and in similar language immersion schools across the country — will help them to communicate more effectively not just in their own American polyglot, but in the 21st century's increasingly global village.

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