“You need a good roadmap to get to where you want to go,” said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. “It’s not just nice to know another language, it’s increasingly essential.” Referencing Afghanistan, the senator said that knowledge of another language alone isn’t enough, but understanding cultural issues is critical for national security, prosperity, and peace in the world.”
The senator made his comments when the roadmap he referenced was unveiled at the Statehouse on June 8. The Rhode Island Roadmap to Language Excellence was created by business, education, and government leaders who, after meeting over several months, concluded that language and cultural skills were needed for a competitive state workforce that could function globally and locally.
The roadmap recommends a route to language and cultural proficiency that begins in pre-kindergarten and continues through college. The ongoing project is supported by The Language Flagship, an initiative of the Defense Language and National Security Education Office, in collaboration with the University of Rhode Island. Rhode Island is the sixth state in the country to develop a roadmap.
“Language learning is the mechanics that opens the door to culture which leads to understanding people,” says Michael Byrnes, a native of Bristol, R.I., retired U.S. Army Brigadier General and former president of Tyco International, China who supports the effort. “The study of the Chinese language and culture opened many doors for me and changed my life,” he said.
URI President David M. Dooley sees the implementation of the language roadmap in Rhode Island as a way for the state to distinguish itself in the global marketplace. The state’s small size, coastal location, and diverse population make the state an ideal site. “It is an opportunity for Rhode Island to become a magnet for business and commerce. This is the place where global people can do business, visit, and become partners.”
Bilingual speakers are also needed locally as Cranston Mayor Allan Fung attests. Fung’s parents came from China. City workers, knowing the mayor’s language ability, sometimes bring Chinese-only speaking people to city hall so the mayor can translate for them.
Antonio Barajas, an emergency room physician at Roger Williams Medical Center, noted that the stress of his Latino patients in the ER is visually lessened when they realize that Barajas can speak to them in fluent Spanish.
URI 2003 Alumna Ydania Carrasco, a lean engineer at Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Co. noted that she can easily relate to the company’s Portuguese speaking workers due to her fluent Spanish, which she kept up as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic by earning 5-year-dual bachelor’s degrees in industrial engineering and Spanish.
“The Rhode Island Roadmap to Language Excellence not only calls for a commitment to new thinking regarding the value of world language and culture skills, but for new resource allocation as well. The implementation of the recommendations requires collaboration from leaders in the educational, business and government sectors throughout the state and parental support. The recommendations require, in some cases, legislative support; in other cases engagement from the private sector to provide funding for programs and scholarships,” said Erin Papa, principal investigator of the Rhode Island Roadmap to Language Excellence Project and coordinator of the URI Chinese Flagship Program.
The first step of the roadmap is to develop public awareness about the benefits of world language proficiency and support for the plan’s recommendations:
* A supervisor for Rhode Island’s world language education.
Rhode Island is one of few states without a state-level supervisor responsible for world language education. The supervisor, housed at the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, would possess specialized knowledge of language acquisition, materials, content, and second language learning styles; and disseminate best practices and serve as a world language liaison with government, business, and education.
* A Rhode Island Center for Language Teaching, Learning, and Culture.
To build coalitions and promote collaboration, a Rhode Island Center for Language Teaching, Learning and Culture would promote world language learning and cultural competency at government, education, and business levels. URI, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island would act as managing partners, each bringing their respective expertise to the table: CCRI’s open access to higher education, RIC’s bilingual teacher education program and its Institute for Portuguese and Lusophone World Studies, and URI’s International Engineering and Chinese Flagship Programs.
* Articulated Pre-Kindergarten-Grade 16 World Language Sequences.
Research suggests the key to produce Rhode Island graduates proficient in at least two languages is to start early and build proficiency throughout the student’s educational career. Currently articulated or sequenced language education is virtually non-existent. This recommendation establishes a process for pilot programs to be created whereby a set of schools (e.g., an elementary, a middle, and a high school), in partnership with an institution of higher education, would be awarded funding to plan an articulated dual immersion-style language learning program, one in which 50 percent of the instruction in all classes is given in a target language other than English. Interested school districts could select a language based on demographics or other locally appropriate considerations. For example, a district with a critical mass of Portuguese and native English speakers might implement a dual immersion Portuguese-English program. Funding for such an initiative could be secured through a consortium of supportive companies that would pay dues into a fund. Schools can then apply for funding to put in place a sequence of bi-lingual education into their curricula.
* Incentives for Language Education Teachers.
This calls for the development of incentives designed to attract, prepare, and retain language education teachers. This includes strategies for attracting additional heritage, native, and highly proficient non-native speakers into the teaching field; improving alternative licensure procedures; promoting exchange programs with institutions abroad where the target language is spoken; offering financial bonuses to bilingual teachers; and enhancing the clinical component of teacher training programs by partnering with local bilingual schools.
* Incentives for Student Language Proficiency.
Findings from roadmap research emphasize the need to measure language acquisition by proficiency levels, not seat time, or years spent learning a language. Credit for proficiency, such as a diploma endorsement (e.g., in the form of a seal of bi-literacy upon graduation), scholarships for study abroad, and work-to-school internships are among the ideas under consideration.
“In order to have every Rhode Island graduate proficient in English and at least another language by 2030, we must have every kindergartener starting school in 2017 in a bilingual program,” said Papa.
“Our goal is to start pilot language programs in 3 to 5 districts (10 to 15 percent of districts) at the elementary level in 2012/13, increasing to 20 to 30 percent of districts in 2013/14, 50 to 60 percent in 2014/15, 80 to 90 percent in 2015/16, and 100 percent by 2016/17.”
A follow-up meeting is set for June 26 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the French- American School of Rhode Island. Anyone interested in attending is welcome. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Erin Papa, 401.874.5566for more information.
U.S. Senator Jack Reed speaks at the launch
Dana Ramey, 2010 RI Teacher of the Year, Spanish Teacher; Middletown High School
(From left) Louise Jakobson from the French-American School of Rhode Island, Marie R. Fraley, Interim Director Institute for Portuguese and Lusophone World Studies at Rhode Island College, and Dominique Velociter, Head of School, French-American School of Rhode Island.
URI Photos by Robynn Butler