Abell Salutes: The Study of Non-Traditional Languages (Chinese, Japanese, Russian) in the Baltimore  City  Schools

November 1990 / Salutes / Education

In Baltimore City College, students are studying Chinese, Japanese and Russian; in Poly, Chinese and Russian; in Western High, Chinese and Russian. Up until three years ago, these same students would most likely have been studying French, German or Spanish–languages traditionally taught in American schools because American society was in fact an extension of the Western European. And in the world of the 19th and 20th centuries that those young people were expected to live and work in, these languages were identified as the most important languages to know.

But now it is 1990, and the international world is changing dramatically. Today, the languages of Russia and China and Japan are also included in the languages young people need to know if they are going to be a part of the world of the 1900s and beyond.

That is why these several hundred students at City, Poly, Southern, Western and Patterson are studying Russian, Chinese and Japanese–thought only a few years ago, in terms of public school curricula, to be exotic. No more: The teaching of these languages is now thought to be, by students, faculty and families, a timely and creative response by the Baltimore City Public Schools, with support from The Abell Foundation, to the challenges of change in the international order. Ms. Yueh Chien and Mr. Jian-Min teach Chinese to about 100 students in Poly and Western. ‘Three years ago when we started,” Ms. Chien says, “we only had about 50 students. Today we teach about 100, and the interest in the course seems to be growing. The first and second year’s focus was on the language itself, mostly grammar and vocabulary. But Ms. Chien and Mr. Jian-Min are now introducing aspects of Chinese culture. “In our classes at Western and Poly, white, black and Oriental children together,” Ms. Chien says, “we all celebrate the Chinese New Year.”

Andrew Tomlinson and Michael Kosibi teach Russian to 140 students in City, Poly and Western. “These students,” Tomlinson says, “are in a unique position in the country. Studies show that among the obstacles to trading with the Russians is language. These students are among only 18,000 students in all of America who are studying Russian. Those of them studying the language into the third year are among only 2,000 to be studying the language that many years. So these students are going to be singularly well prepared both to continue their studies in advanced programs, and to find a place in the economy.”

The Non-Traditional Language initiative is a four-year program. Students who do well for the first three years are given, at the end of their third year and before they start their fourth, a trip to the country of the language he or she has been studying.

In the end, students taking these non­ traditional languages not only get the intellectual stimulation of being exposed to the new and the different of life’s experiences, but enjoy, too, the advantages of coming into the working world witl1 increasingly important, in-demand knowledge and skills.