This article was originally published in the spring 2013 Harker Quarterly.
Harker progresses in its mission to help students become global citizens, the school’s foreign language department has been instrumental in not only equipping students with the skills to communicate, but also instilling familiarity, understanding and admiration of many different cultures.
From on-campus cultural events, to visits by authors and musicians, to trips overseas, the foreign language program strives to create an immersive experience to make students enthusiastic about languages and the cultures of the people who speak them.
“There’s just so much energy connected to the immersive experience that really motivates the kids,” said Abel Olivas, upper school Spanish teacher and foreign language department chair. “It’s almost like they don’t even really realize that they’re learning.”
One indicator of how valued foreign language education is at Harker is its early introduction into the curriculum. In grade 1, students attend one period of Spanish each week. Students in grades 4 and 5 attend two periods a week. Upon reaching grade 6, they may take Spanish, French, Japanese, Latin or Mandarin for four periods each week.
“It’s wonderful to introduce foreign language study as early as possible,” said Carol Parris, K-8 foreign languages department chair. “In terms of oral fluency, young students are generally good mimics and less inhibited about speaking than students who start the study of language in later years.”
Diana Moss, an upper school Spanish teacher, says beginning early also helps students pick up patterns in different languages, enabling them to transition from one foreign language to another much more easily. “I do think that there is something to the effect that once you’re working with language, it’s easier and easier,” she said. “You understand how to put languages together.”
This foundation often results in students taking level 3 language classes in their first year of high school. “Very few high schools encourage freshmen to enter level 3 language classes,” Parris added.
This level of proficiency, however, isn’t just the result of starting young. At every level, teachers go to great lengths to keep their students engaged and excited about learning languages. “Language students enjoy learning about the countries and cultures where the languages are spoken,” Parris said. “In addition to language, they learn about geography, art, music and customs, participate in holiday celebrations, have food tastings, etc. A highlight of 2M classes [for students who have taken the three-year middle school language sequence] is going to a restaurant of the appropriate nationality.”
Such activities take students beyond the often rote process of learning a foreign language to help them develop a more emotional connection to the languages they are learning. “Let’s face it,” Moss said. “Grammar and learning vocabulary are not the most exciting things in the world. The thing that makes a foreign language fun is the culture.”
Olivas, for example, teaches students in his classes how to dance salsa. “It’s one of the things that they seem to really enjoy, even the kids who are not dancers,” he said. They also delve into the lives of famous salsa artists, such as Cuban-American legend Celia Cruz.
Other teachers treat their students to local cultural events, such as the Japanese tea ceremony in San Francisco which was attended by the students of middle school Japanese teacher Kumi Matsui. Similarly, upper school Mandarin teacher Shaun Jahshan has taken her students to local Chinese-American marketplaces, where they use their knowledge of Chinese to order food and milk tea.
Angela Ma, grade 11, who has studied French at Harker since grade 6, said the cultural elements in her classes have enhanced her enjoyment and understanding of the language. “All of my French textbooks dedicate many pages to cultural and social comparisons, which my French teachers then expand on in class,” she said. “These extra mini-lessons on French tradition not only make everyday French class more relevant, but also remind the students that French is a language that encompasses much more than grammar and vocabulary.”
Teachers also liven up the classroom by inventing games to make the learning process more fun for their students. One of Olivas’ most popular classroom activities is the fly swatter game in which Olivas says a word or phrase in English or Spanish and students use a fly swatter to slap a synonymous Spanish word or phrase written on the board.
“Because they’re having a blast with it, the energy level goes up, and this learning process doesn’t feel like grunt work. It’s actually enjoyable,” Olivas said.
“We spend a lot of time having students practice in pairs, do group works and play games for reviewing materials, and there is always lively interaction going on in class, which makes foreign language classes unique from the rest of academic classes,” said Masako Onakado, who teaches upper school Japanese.
“The nice thing about foreign language is that it’s really whatever you want to talk about,” Moss said, remembering a time when Olivas walked into her classroom to ask her students what they thought of his sweater, sparking a long and lively discussion about his wardrobe, entirely in Spanish.
To create a more immersive environment, teachers often enforce a “No English” rule while class is in session. Olivas said this helps students mentally associate people and places with a language, thereby making use of the language feel more natural. “If you can get them to associate people and places with that language then it becomes more automatic; it’s like a switch comes on,” he said. Not surprisingly, foreign language teachers at Harker are full of stories about encountering their students outside the classroom, who then speak to them in their second languages almost automatically.
In addition to its unique approach to teaching languages, Harker’s foreign language program also offers an unusually wide array of languages for students to learn. “It might be difficult for some people, but the variety is amazing,” said Erik Andersen, grade 12, who started learning Latin in grade 10 and now studies Japanese. “The availability of Latin, Romance and Asian languages has been a rewarding experience for me, allowing me to learn about many different aspects of language and culture.”
Moss said support from Harker families, many of them multilingual, is a big reason for the depth of foreign language options. “The families here really value second-language education,” she said. “They have seen firsthand how important it is in this world economy to have languages under your belt.”
Students frequently find that their study of languages has applications beyond the classroom. “I chose French, in particular, because I do ballet and all of the dance steps are named in French,” said Ma. “Learning French has allowed me to understand ballet in a much more meaningful way by exposing me to the history and origins of the art.” She has also had the chance to use her French skills overseas during trips to France and Switzerland. “Two years ago, I traveled to Switzerland with the Harker Exchange Program. While I was there, I spoke almost entirely French the whole time,” she said. “Speaking French helped me become closer with my host family and appreciate the way of life in Switzerland.”
Andersen has found that his studies in Latin have enabled him to pick up on the meanings of English words that were previously unknown to him. “It might also help me if I decide I want to try to learn a Romance language later on,” he said.
Another important component of Harker’s foreign language education is trips to parts of the world where the languages are spoken natively. Students visit Japan, China and other countries every year to immerse themselves in their cultures and converse with native speakers. In 2011, middle school Spanish students embarked for the first time on a language immersion trip to Costa Rica, where they visited various important landmarks, participated in cultural celebrations and visited with the local population, using their Spanish language skills to communicate. This summer, middle school students will again participate in this trip, which is scheduled to take place every other summer.
Once overseas, Moss said, students often find themselves less apprehensive about using their second languages. “There’s really nothing like the actual experience of being in a foreign country and using a foreign language,” she said. “Kids tend to be kind of timid in the class. They don’t think they speak very well, but when they get out in the real world, they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can communicate,’ and it’s exciting for them.”
For many students, this passion for languages continues after graduation. “In the past few years, we have had growing number of students continuing to study Japanese in college,” Onakado said. “In this past year alone, we had four alumni going to Japan on study abroad programs.” Several more students, she said, are planning to study in Japan to learn more about the country’s culture and improve their proficiency with the language, even though most of them are not Japanese language majors.
Katherin Hudkins ’06, daughter of lower school art teacher Susan Bass and Director of Instructional Technology Dan Hudkins, spent a year in Ecuador as a birth doula and worked as a midwife’s apprentice in Guatemala. She Skyped from Ecuador with a Spanish class in 2009, and visited Harker in 2010 to speak to the students about her experiences.
“By the time they’re done with our program, I think that they really feel that … this is one of their languages,” Olivas said. “We haven’t heard back from them for a couple of years, and then all of a sudden you hear either that they’re minoring in the language or that they just spent a year in South America or they just did this great community service work.”
The importance of foreign language studies at Harker has resulted in many awards and honors for its students. Japanese language students have taken top honors at the Japan Bowl in Washington, D.C., several times and once even earned the opportunity to visit Japan and meet with the Imperial Princess. Harker also inducts dozens of students into the National Honor Societies of its foreign language programs. Students on many occasions have also taken top spots in linguistics competitions. Andersen, for example, helped his team win first place at last year’s International Linguistics Olympiad in Slovenia.
Ultimately, Moss views foreign language education as another way of helping students become citizens of the world and not just of the country in which they grew up. “Our students understand that they are global citizens, and it’s not about just living and understanding [American] culture,” Moss said.
Olivas also stressed that learning a new language, though useful, is more than just learning about how people talk: “It’s connected to how people live and how they express themselves, the ways in which they’re unique, the ways in which their societies are rich.”