Utah's Languages of Opportunity: State Stresses Bilingualism as Sure Route to Work and Careers around the Globe

By Pascopella, Angela | District Administration, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Utah's Languages of Opportunity: State Stresses Bilingualism as Sure Route to Work and Careers around the Globe


Pascopella, Angela, District Administration


When it comes to foreign language study, Utah is emerging as a national trendsetter. The state's five-year-old dual-language immersion program will likely give Utah students a leg up in the future job market and foreign affairs, and could serve as a model for other states, language experts say.

The dual-language immersion program was born in 2008 under former Gov. Jon Huntsman with approval from the state legislature. Elementary school students spend half their instructional time in English and the other half in the target language; which language subjects are taught varies by grade level.

In grade 7 and higher, students take two classes in the target language, such as Mandarin Chinese, French and Spanish. Portuguese was added in the 2012-2013 school year.

In 2010, Gov. Gary Herbert pushed for implementing 100 dual-language immersion programs throughout the state by 2015, with the goal of enrolling 25,000 students, says Gregg Roberts, world languages and dual language specialist for Utah's Department of Education.

But Utah districts are already meeting that goal and adding 25 more programs in the 2014-2015 year.

The language program receives about $2 million a year of funding from the state, which also provides help with teacher selection, professional development, curriculum, and materials, Roberts adds. And although many administrators may be wary of starting new foreign language programs, they don't have to be an expensive burden for districts, says Martha G. Abbott, executive director of the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).

Before Utah decided which languages would be taught, the state education office looked to, in part, a 2011 Bloomberg report, "The Languages of Business." It reveals that Mandarin, French, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese are the top six most useful languages for business.

Utah educators are looking to add classes in Arabic, but don't have the resources yet, Roberts says.

"In Utah, it's all about economics, economics, economics," Roberts says, adding that educators and leaders want Utah students not only to find jobs in the U.S., but also in Paris, Beijing, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo.

Language boosts learning

ACTFL agrees that students learn language more comprehensively when they start early or take dual-language immersion classes. Abbott also points out that standards-based language instruction helps students learn skills in other subjects and strengthens college and career readiness. "As learners compare the new language with their native language, they gain a deeper awareness of how language functions," says Abbott. "We routinely graduate kids with knowledge of just one language--and it's generally been the case, because of our isolation geographically and our history.., and we didn't feel we had to interact with the rest of the world."

About 16 states require foreign language learning now. "We feel we are coming to a tipping point," Abbott says. "Most students are graduating with knowledge of just one language and if they take a foreign language, such as in ninth and 10th grade, there is no proficiency."

As 2014 approaches, more jobs in medicine, engineering, government, and business are going to Asia and Latin America, forcing Americans to up the ante to survive in the marketplace, Roberts says. "Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century," says Roberts. "For our economic survival and for the national security of our country, we must educate students who are multilingual and culturally competent." Students also need to understand what is acceptable in terms of manners and business in foreign cultures, she adds.

How it works

Utah's program uses a 50/50 model in which students spend half their school day in the target language, with one teacher, and the other half in English, with another teacher. Utah has arrangements with Taiwan, China, France, Spain, Brazil, and Mexico to provide International Guest teachers, who have special, highly qualified licenses to teach in Utah. …

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