Making Sense of Babel; Acquiring a Second Language No Longer a Foreign idea.(EDUCATION)(COOK IT QUICK)

Article excerpt


Walk through the hallways of Daniels Run or Providence elementary schools in Fairfax County, and you'll hear something rather surprising. In addition to the usual schoolhouse chatter, you'll hear third- and fourth-graders calling out to each other in a language rarely heard outside the confines of a classical library.

"They're having fun with Latin," says Gudrun Martyny, a foreign-language specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools. Now in its second year, the early Latin program has proved so popular that it is expanding to include fifth and sixth grades next year.

"Latin is a boost for language skills at the elementary level," Mrs. Martyny says. "It starts students thinking about how languages are put together."

Finding new uses for Latin accompanies a larger explosion of interest in second-language acquisition. Knowing a foreign language is all about access. No longer is the language major relegated to teaching or the halls of academe. In health professions and in social work, business and industry, speaking another language can be a boon. Once again, there also is room for new teachers.

"In the last generation, language majors were discouraged, but there's a real need for teachers now, in addition to opportunities in other fields like business or social work," says Charles Psychos, a French teacher at Georgetown Day High School in the District.

At Georgetown University, where most language majors end up in law or business, emphasis is placed on language proficiency and "communicative and cultural competence," says Jeff Connor-Linton, chairman of the department of linguistics.

"People need to know enough of culture that speaking a language is not just using a tool, it's using a tool in a contextualized way," he says.

You won't just hear French or Spanish anymore, however. Today's language students increasingly are studying non-European tongues. In Fairfax County alone, in addition to the traditional offerings of French, German and Spanish, high school students can choose from a list of languages that includes courses in Japanese, Arabic and Russian.

Many of the students enrolled in such nontraditional language courses are considered "heritage learners," who may hear the language spoken at home but need practice in writing and grammar. Others are students interested in Foreign Service careers or in a particular culture. Still others simply want to converse with their neighbors.

"Learning another language makes you a more active participant in today's society," says Stephen Levy, acting executive director of the American Council of Foreign Language Teachers. "It makes you aware of cultural and linguistic differences among groups in a multiethnic U.S. population."

Even Latin is attracting new interest these days, and not just for empowering elementary-school-age students to think about language.

"There are many fields open today to Latin scholars," says Gail Massot, chairwoman of the foreign-language department at Georgetown Day High School. "It is useful in more ways than you would think for archaeologists, art historians, historical researchers and, of course, linguists."

Mrs. Massot meets monthly with other Latin aficionados for dinners where Latin is spoken exclusively.

"Latin is really making a comeback," she says enthusiastically. "It's a fascinating language."

Looking for linguists

The need for expanded language study was underscored after the events of September 11, when FBI Director Robert Mueller put out a call for speakers of Arabic. In January, the FBI kicked off a new recruiting campaign that highlighted its need for speakers of non-European languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Korean.

Meanwhile, a General Accounting Office report released in January highlighted the need for increased attention to foreign languages because of foreign-language shortages at key federal agencies, including the U. …