Foreign language clubs expand students' horizons during lunch

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Like most elementary schools in the city, Pittsburgh Concord K-5 in Carrick doesn't have time or money for world language instruction.

It uses ingenuity to help children learn a language.

This spring, it started two foreign language clubs that meet weekly at lunch and are taught by two paraprofessionals at the school -- Celia O'Brien, who is a native Spanish speaker, and Jason Bhandari, a Bhutanese refugee who is native Nepali speaker.

Ms. O'Brien and Mr. Bhandari are assigned to Concord because it is a center for English as a second language, or ESL.

Of the 451 students enrolled at Concord, more than 100 are not native English speakers. Most of them speak Nepali, but other languages spoken include Spanish, Burmese, Karen, Vietnamese, French and Swahili.

"There's a real need for the community to be aware of cultural diversity here at Concord," principal Jessica Colbert said.

It was a "natural fit" to enlist Ms. O'Brien and Mr. Bhandari to run clubs once a week instead of supervising lunch, Ms. Colbert said.

A language club was tried at Pittsburgh Beechwood K-5 in Beechview a few years ago but was discontinued after the teacher, who was certified in Spanish, left the school.

Concord has demand for the clubs, which are open to English speakers in grades 4 and 5. Each has 11 students, but more than 40 applied to be in the clubs.

Those in the clubs showed an eagerness to be able to communicate better with their classmates.

"I have four or five friends who speak Spanish," said fifth-grader Sidney Bath, who said she knows 78 Spanish words. "I wanted to learn Spanish so I could speak to them."

Fourth-grader Maddy Dalverny, who is in the Nepali club, said, "I wanted to learn what they were saying when they would talk to me so I can start interacting with them."

In the clubs, students learn about both language and culture.

At a recent Nepali club, students sampled kukhurako masu, a spicy chicken dish, while learning to pronounce vocabulary, such as "bhat" for rice. Mr. Bhandari also showed the words written in the Nepali alphabet.

At a recent Spanish club, Ms. O'Brien practiced vocabulary in a bingo game, guiding the students as they also used food words in sentences expressing what they liked or didn't like.

"They're like sponges. They learn so fast," Ms. O'Brien said.

She said the students also find out how challenging and exciting learning a language can be.

Mr. Bhandari said the students are "getting a sense of comfort to talk with the Nepali people."

Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said research shows an early start on language learning is valuable.

She said learning a second language "is actually working a different part of the brain than the native language. When the brain gets that kind of a workout, it develops a lot more flexibility and ability to function in a better way."

She said learning another language can boost reading and math scores, enhance students' openness to other cultures; and develop skills necessary for an international economy. However, she said some districts across the nation are cutting language programs in elementary schools as they face difficult budgets and staffing.

"We're going to be left behind if we don't start raising our children to be ready for this global environment in which they're going to live and work," she said.

The most recent study, done in 2009, showed that about 25 percent of the nation's elementary schools have a world language program, she said. Another study is planned for the coming year.

As Pittsburgh Public Schools has expanded time spent on English language arts, math and other core subjects, opportunities for students to learn a world language have shrunk.

Marsha Plotkin, curriculum supervisor for world languages, said more cuts are expected this fall.

Pittsburgh Sterrett 6-8 in Point Breeze won't offer any world languages although, as a classical academy, it used to offer a Latin-based course as well as French and Spanish.

This school year, Sterrett tried offering German, but two teachers, one after the other, resigned.

Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 in Downtown plans to eliminate Spanish in grades 6-8, the only world language offered this year in those grades at that school.

Pittsburgh South Brook 6-8 in Brookline plans to discontinue its Spanish classes this fall.

Both CAPA and Brashear High School in Beechview may lose one Spanish teacher each although both still will offer Spanish, and Brashear plans to expand its offerings to include Russian.

This school year, most K-8 and 6-8 schools in Pittsburgh Public Schools do not offer a world language. Only Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill offers it in the elementary grades, with Spanish beginning in grade 3.

Among K-5 schools, only five have a world language class. Four of them are world language magnet schools; the fifth, Allegheny K-5 on the North Side, a traditional academy magnet, started Spanish this school year and plans to continue it in the fall.

Not counting the upcoming reductions, in recent years, 17 schools -- K-5, K-8 and 6-8 -- have eliminated world languages, the result of tight schedules, reduced budgets and limited supply for world language teachers for part-time positions.

Among them are South Hills 6-8 in Beechview, which also has shown some ingenuity. About 30 South Hills students arrive an hour early to take French, Italian or Spanish at adjacent Brashear High School.

Ms. Abbott, of the American Council, said some language programs start informally as language clubs, like the ones at Concord.

"It heightens the awareness. Then the parents get on board and say, 'This is important,' " she said.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.

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