Scheduling update: Bye, adios, au revoir Chinese program

Sam Turnbaugh, Reporter

Chinese language education will soon be coming to an end at Hereford High School, owing to small classes and a lack of foreign language teachers throughout the county. This comes shortly after the end of Latin classes at Hereford and ironically amidst a BCPS effort to diversify world language education by introducing Japanese and German classes at Catonsville High and Parkville High School.

Chinese students expressed disappointment; Thys Millan (’19) said: “They’re seriously ending Chinese? Well, I hope I get to AP.”

Addison Leisher (’20), a third-year Chinese student, said: “Everyone said Spanish and French were easy and I wanted to challenge myself.”

He said that he thought that it was be a useful skill “especially for when the Chinese take over.”

Others mentioned the benefits of foreign language education; Millan said, “It gives people an opportunity to widen their horizons.”

Laura Bailey (’17), who is in her sixth year of Chinese classes, said that there was a benefit to “being able to communicate with other people if they don’t speak English, or if they do speak English maybe communicating with them in their native language means more to them.”

“You get to know people through learning this language, and the other part is it’s a very different language.” Chinese teacher Fen-Wei Koh said, “When you learn Chinese you process it very differently than French and Spanish. It is a language that opens students in many different ways to learning, [both] skill-wise and culturally.”

World Languages Department Chair Margaret Kopp said foreign language classes can open students’ eyes to other countries and cultures. “There’s so much study about the benefits of bilingualism, about increasing your vocabulary through foreign language study, increasing your metacognitive ability,” she said, “I think you learn more about grammar and learn more about your own language in your foreign language class than you do in your English classes, when you look at your language from the outside. I think that it is a marketable skill.”

Some felt that the county and school could be doing more to support Chinese and other foreign language classes.

“I don’t think it’s right,” Leisher said, “I think they should keep Chinese.”

“I would like to see more [support].” Koh said, “Not everybody knows [about] this language, there’s a learning curve.”

According to Kopp, the decline of Chinese is not due to any lack of support from educational higher-ups. “I think it’s really more of a staffing issue, than it is about the county supporting it,” she said. “We’d love to bring Latin back, it’s a great language to learn but there’s no one available to teach it. And the same with Chinese, we simply don’t have the staffing in the county and the people trained to teach it and teach it well, because you can’t just be a speaker of the language. If you don’t have good teachers, programs tend to die. And that’s what’s happening.”

The changes at Hereford reflect a national trend; in 2015 the Modern Language Association reported a decline in overall foreign language enrollment for the first time in decades. The Atlantic opined that “Budget cuts, low enrollments, and teacher shortages mean the country is falling behind the rest of the world.”

Mandarin Chinese is classified as an LCTL (Less Commonly Taught language) by the US government. The designation is given to any foreign language other than Spanish, French, and German, the three most common languages offered in American schools. Seeing a strategic need for citizens fluent in foreign languages like Arabic, Russian and Chinese, the government created the National Security Education Program and the Defense Language and National Security Education Office to promote LCTL programs. Nationally, results have been mixed, with certain languages, including Korean, growing in popularity, while enrollment in others, like Russian, has continued to decline.

Chinese was included in Baltimore County’s last foreign language push. “The County expanded the program and Chinese in particular more quickly than it had the teacher capacity to support that expansion,” Kopp said, “And now what we’re seeing is programs dying.”

She added that it’s difficult to attract teachers for languages like Chinese and Latin, who often work only part-time. The turnover rate for Chinese teachers has been high; Hereford High has been through two Chinese in the past four years, and the Middle School has also reshuffled its staff, bringing in Dr. Ming Zhu who splits time between Hereford and Ridgely Middle School.

Koh maintains that the Chinese language is increasingly relevant. “I’d like to see more people know this language, and when I say people I actually mean adults, and not just students,” Koh said. “I’d like to see more teachers who teach other subjects actually get to know this language… from the perspective of an outsider, to see what it’s like to learn this language, why are things so different, why are some parts so difficult and why are some parts so simple?”