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Remember the good old days, when taking a language in high school meant endless hours of “My name is Fred,” translating vocabulary words and listening to the teacher repeat everything in English so you’d know what she was saying?
And maybe, if you were lucky and went to a large school, you may have had a choice of languages to study – most likely Spanish, French or German.
Welcome to the future.
At Trimble County High School, students shuffle daily through the 35-station language lab and plug into the computer-based program, Rosetta Stone, to learn one of 22 languages – anything from Arabic to Vietnamese.
Oh, and of course, there’s Spanish, French and German.
After losing the school’s Spanish teacher in June, Principal Stirling “Buddy” Sampson decided to think “outside the box.” Over the summer, he chose to not fill the position and, instead, committed $10,000 of the $45,000 allotted for a language teacher’s salary to buy the rights for up to 1,000 students to use the Rosetta Stone program online. He then invested $23,000 to buy 35 brand-new Dell computers to set up a new lab located on the north end of the building.
This year, 235 of the schools 460 students are taking foreign language classes, Sampson said. That works out to roughly 51 percent, and means the language lab is filled to capacity during nearly every period in the school day.
Most are taking Spanish, but two students chose to study Mandarin Chinese, said Jeana Alexander, who monitors the lab during sixth period.
Since August, the majority of students already have completed the first level of the pass/fail program and have earned one credit. Sampson said he expects most of them to complete the second level by the end of the school year, which will earn them another credit toward graduation.
The good news is the only recurring cost for the program is the funding for the program licenses.
“We are still allocated the [language teacher] salary, so next year, we still have the option to hire another teacher,” Sampson said.
How the program works
The progress the TCHS students are making with the Rosetta Stone program, however, doesn’t come as a surprise to Duane Sider, director of learning for the company. Rosetta Stone is based in Arlington, Va., but Sider’s office is in Harrisonburg, Va., where the company was founded in 1992.
The program, originally, was designed to supplement a teacher’s curriculum in the classroom and provide a way for students to get individualized instruction so they can progress at their own pace, Sider said in a phone interview Monday. “It is structured to make learning easy. Students love working with it, and they make progress quickly.”
Sider said the Rosetta Stone program is designed to “immerse” the student in the new language using visual cues to help teach vocabulary and form simple phrases and sentences. It then progresses to more complicated sentence structure.
For example, the Japanese program starts by showing a photo of a boy. The native Japanese voice speaks the word “otokonoko” and the word appears in hiragana (a beginner’s form of Japanese writing) on the screen. It quickly progresses to show a photo of the boy taking a drink of water and gives the phrase, “The boy drinks water” to the student.
The immersion component means the program does not use the student’s native language to teach the new one, Sider explained.
Rather, it goes back to how anyone learns their native language. For instance, an English-speaking person, as a child, most likely would learn the meaning of the word “window” by associating it with the image of a window, he said.
“You can’t and wouldn’t start [learning a language] with sentences, so at the very beginning, it is teaching vocabulary and building structures with vocabulary words,” Sider said. “And it’s done entirely with images.”
Sider said he was not aware of the new program at TCHS, but said he has heard of many innovative ways school districts are using the program in the classroom.
Most often, the program is used to enhance English as a Second Language programs that target foreign-born students who are learning English.
That districts are finding other ways to use the program is “so rewarding for us, as a company,” Sider said. “Our goal was always to work with educators to elevate the importance of language learning within the curriculum, and in the lives of students, as well. There are so many opportunities for students to study” or work overseas today.
Conventional wisdom holds that the younger a student is, the easier it is for them to learn a new language.
So, is the district considering expanding the Rosetta Stone program into the middle and elementary schools, based on its success at the hight school?
“Possibly,” said Rebecca Moore, supervisor of instruction for the district. “The elementary schools are exploring that. The problem is computer lab time and facilities.”
The program recommends students spend 20-30 minutes working on their new language daily. While the two new elementary schools are well-quipped with computers, still “we don’t have the infrastructure” to give all students that kind of computer time, Moore said.
The schools could offer it to particular grade levels, but “Rosetta Stone offers three to four levels,” Moore added. “If a child takes a language in elementary or middle school, then in high school, where do you go? ... It’s a wonderful program, and we hope we can expand it. But we’re not sure how.”