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Missouri students increase enrollment in language studies


The number of Missouri students taking foreign languages is on the rise – with enrollment in foreign language classes doubling over the past 20 years. But the increase isn’t being driven by education policy, finds KBIA’s Chris McDaniel in this report.

It’s 8 o’ clock on a Wednesday morning in Chris Johnson’s Spanish 4 class at Jefferson City High School.  He’s warming students up by discussing a current event.  There are 17 students sitting in a classroom that’s lined with Spanish books and posters.  In fact, in the entire room, the only things not in Spanish are the fire and tornado drill instructions.  If you’re having trouble understanding what the students and Johnson are discussing, you might not have taken Spanish in high school -- and that is becoming an increasing rarity.

Over the past 20 years, foreign language enrollment has more than doubled in Missouri public schools.  About two thirds of the foreign language classes are Spanish courses.  Johnson says it’s becoming difficult to meet the demand.“Especially here, we’ve had to drop some of the students just because we don’t have the faculty to keep up with the students who want to take Spanish.”

Johnson attributes the rise in enrollment to an increased global awareness.“I think parents and students are beginning to see that we’re no longer in our little town anymore. It’s becoming more global, there’s a huge influx of immigrants and we’re seeing it here in Jefferson City, we’re seeing it everywhere and we’re realizing how important it is to be bilingual and have that exposure to other languages.”

“There is not a specific foreign language requirement in our graduation requirements.” That’s Michele Clark, a communications coordinator with the State Board of Education.  Somewhat surprisingly, the dramatic increase in enrollment isn’t being driven by any state requirement.  While the state doesn’t have a requirement, students may still have requisites from their local school board.  At Jefferson City High School, only 1 foreign language unit is required for students.  In addition, most colleges require at least 2 units of the same language for admittance. 

Johnson says there are more benefits to learning another language than just getting into college, though.“The students that do take a foreign language, they become better and more aware of their native language. If anything, the students that come in, we’ve found they don’t have an awareness of how they speak and their writing is poor.”

Clark says enrollment in Chinese courses has changed the most in the past 10 years, increasing from two hundred courses offered to over a thousand.

Janet Saidi is a producer and professor at KBIA and the Missouri School of Journalism.