Opinion: Speak Up For Foreign Languages


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The Verona Public School system intends to change foreign language instruction in the elementary schools and they have put up a three-question survey on the school Web site, ostensibly to gain parental input. But the questions–written as if to lead parents to a foregone conclusion–have the power to make things worse for our kids, who need more fluency in foreign languages more than ever.

I speak five languages other than English (French, Italian, German, Japanese and Russian). The first two were learned in Verona public schools, at Laning and VHS respectively. Those skills enabled me to work for the French government and in Belgium, freelance as a translator and interpreter, and travel the back roads of the world quite extensively without a tour bus. I know from experience that it is much easier to learn a foreign language early and by being fully immersed in it. Sylvia Strauss, Delia Polifroni, Louise Fricke and John Burguillos, my Verona language teachers, addressed their classes only in the languages we were learning. So did my teachers of German, Japanese and Russian. I taught my children, who were both adopted from Russia, to speak English by flooding them with English. Immersion is not, generally, the way foreign language is now taught in Verona elementary schools, but there’s no question on the survey that asks parents if they think that’s a problem.

My children, and yours, will need to speak languages other than English when they grow up: Technology has made the world too small and the risks of miscommunication and misunderstanding are too great. Fluency in a foreign language is a skill as critical as multiplication or writing to story prompts, though you’d never know it from the all-powerful NJ ASK.

That said, I have no idea what languages my kids will need. What if, for example, they decide to make their careers in energy? They’d need English, Arabic and Spanish as petroleum engineers, but French if they were going to specialize in nuclear energy. Italy leads in geothermal energy, Germany in wind power, Norway in hydro power, and Spain and China in solar. Basing their language needs on which country has the largest population or the largest immigrant group here just won’t cut it.

I’ve listened, at Board of Education meetings, as well-intentioned, budget-conscious fellow citizens suggest eliminating foreign languages altogether or replacing our teachers with a CD. Both are poor choices. The best colleges in America want to see a strong grounding in foreign languages on a high school transcript. And while we should embrace technology in language instruction, it is not, and will never be, a substitute for exposing a child to a fluent, skilled teacher. My kids can learn languages in ways I never would have dreamed of at their age, watching “SpongeBob” in French and “Star Wars” in Russian over the Internet. But that’s passive language learning: Darth Vader isn’t expecting an answer. To master those languages, or any languages, kids need to be engaged in an active conversation with a live human being.

In a perfect world, our kids would learn a Romance language, an Asian language and Arabic, and that teaching would begin in kindergarten. But standardized testing crowds out much practical instruction these days, and not just in foreign languages. The new survey opens the door for testing to grab even more of our children’s day. It gives parents the Hobson’s choice of rolling back foreign languages to third and fourth grades (Verona currently starts in first grade) or all the way to middle school. The time saved in the school day would be given over to math and “language arts”, i.e. reading and writing in English, the holy grails of the NJ ASK.

Dumb and dumber, say I.

Virginia Citrano

The Board of Ed will be sharing its plans for foreign language instruction at its March 29 meeting. Curiously, this is also the meeting at which the board will present next year’s budget. If the goal is to make French, Spanish and Mandarin once again bear the brunt of Verona’s budget woes, the juxtaposition makes sense. But if the goal is a reasoned discussion of foreign language learning, the conversation should be put off until after the budget decisions.  The citizens of Verona need time to read the research on the benefits of foreign language instruction, benefits that extend, by the way, to their children’s math and English skills.

Our kids deserve better than three simplistic questions.

Virginia Citrano is the editor of MyVeronaNJ.com.

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected].


  1. Muy bien, Virginia. I despise NJ ASK and all the companies getting rich from testing and NCLB “accountability”.

  2. Hello Virginia,

    What a well written article. First off, let me clarify that I do not work in education myself, however I am compelled to respond as I am dumbfounded by some of the reasoning behind the BOE. As a parent, and relative of a teacher in Verona, it may appear I have a conflict of interest, but be assured, my response is independent and based upon my current outlook as a professional in the world of Wall Street and technology for the past 15 years.

    You have already driven home the right points and agree 100% with what you already mentioned. In addition let’s imagine what effects these decisions will have on our children’s future.

    Any reasonable person living in the state of NJ (or most of the United States) should already have an understanding that our school system is broken into pieces. However, Verona seems to have been in an incredibly fortunate system that provides children an opportunity to develop foreign language skills at such a young age. Removing this from the curriculum makes little sense, even with budget concerns. What was the original point of creating a curriculum that included foreign language at such a young age in the first place? I would think it was created to provide opportunity to children. Children need opportunity for success, yet, we are closing the window on future generations in order to solve one single problem. This kind of reasoning appears to be extremely short sighted, and closes one more door for them.

    As for changing up the program and allocating extra time to Math and English – this even make less sense – and only compounds the underlying issue. Again, the typical response is throwing our resources toward another problem so we can meet standards and make the problem go away (or as we saw in wall street – sweep it “under the rug”). The only thing you are left with is a bump under the rug. Has anyone seriously investigated the underlying root of the problem and created a long term plan to address? Why are we only being presented with quick fix ideas that save a dollar today.

    I don’t want to come of sounding uncaring or mean, but the only good coming out of the current proposal is that my job is assured for a very long time as a result having very little competition from our kids when they grow up. No one will disagree that our standards for Math and English are subpar, but this starts with the foundation of the school and those leading our kids. I know firsthand that many teachers, administrators and BOE folks do care, but may not feel empowered to make change. Fixing a problem this big/difficult is NOT supposed to be easy, but don’t make rash decisions and trash future gains because it’s the easiest thing to do. Has anyone assessed the impact of removing foreign language immersion from children at such a young age? Has anyone assessed the impact between multiple foreign languages and career opportunity? Has anyone done anything more that what has been presented?

    My fear is that we are only focused on catching up and meeting arbitrary standards, while never really immersing our children in an environment that requires critical thinking and problem solving. Having students focused on reaching high scores seems to just creates new problems? Have anyone worked with the latest generation of high score testers??? Well, I have a pretty good idea as I interview college graduates all the time, and it’s sad what they really know but don’t understand how to apply.

    I am concerned for my child’s future and will consider private schooling. The things I would suggest is that the BOE needs to focus on attracting top talent and creating a reward system/incentives for teachers to achieve and do well. Empower children with as much opportunity for learning and drive them to solve problems rather than memorizing passages (outside of science). Above all, when deciding how to save money, do it without sacrificing someone else’s future. The long term cost will be too great and us adults already had our chance to be children. Let’s carve out the path for them. Is anyone listening???

  3. First of all, let me say I love Verona, grew up here and choose specifically to raise my children here. I sell Real Estate in Verona, and sing the praises of town and the school system on a daily basis. However, I don’t know if any of these options is the right way to go. As a parent of 2 children that went through the Verona school system I am extremely disappointed in the foreign language program…it is definitely broken! My son, who is now a junior in college, is still paying the price for what the language program did not do for him in Verona. This is a child who graduated VHS with high honors despite receiving D’s in the 2 mandatory years of Spanish he took. He had taken Spanish since FN Brown. He received A’s in Spanish at HBW…then freshman year of HS, he starts getting D’s?! The problem here is that the middle school language department does not prepare the kids for High School level foreign language (Spanish anyway). Those grades severely affected his GPA. He’s lucky he was in other honors and AP classes and his GPA was still high enough to get into a good college. However, at the college he is now attending, in order to get a bachelors degree he must complete an advanced level foreign language. Since he had 2 years of Spanish in HS, his college won’t allow him to start over in Spanish 1. He now has to spend all summer immersed in Spanish taking 3 different Spanish classes (which I have to pay prime $$ for BTW)…and if he doesn’t learn it and pass with at least a C, he will not be able to graduate college next year! This is ridiculous! My daughter who is a senior at VHS this year had similar problems. Since I knew the drill, I specifically requested that she be placed in Spanish 1 as a Freshman but was told that since she was getting A’s & B’s in middle school Spanish, the lowest they would allow her to take was Spanish II. Well…guess what, she barely passed that with a D. Then she had to take French I & II Soph & Jr. years….again, barely passing those with D’s…dragging down her GPA. I truly think that if the language was correctly taught in the grammar and middle school levels, and the students were actually prepared for High School level foreign language that this would solve a lot of the problems. Apparently the mandarin Chinese program is the only one where the students actually seem to learn something!

  4. The two new options proposed in the BOE survey would be going backwards! It is common knowledge today that the best time to learn a language is before the age of ten, when the brain starts to shut down those circuits. Stretching to learn new words and grammars promotes brain flexibility which in turn helps to understand our own native English as well as math concepts.

    The BOE survey is leading the witness at its worst – there are more and better options. Let’s take the time to explore them!

  5. Virginia,

    I do not normally comment on opinion pieces unless I feel there are some bits that should be clarified further. First, I want to point out there is no foregone conclusion about changes to our World Langage program in Verona. It is also NOT the case that we expect to cut our spending by reducing/eliminating language. There is no plan to replace classroom instruction with CDs.

    The purpose of the survery was solely to determine if there are strong parental opinion that we’re missing. The answer is there isn’t. Our BOE has never, and will never, mislead or operate in any disingenuous way. Its unfortunate that the opinion piece suggests that with the survey.

    Rather, our BOE is operating very openly. The plan you cited never made it past our Curriculum Committee, as we explained. We gave an update for the whole Board to discuss how this evaluation was progressing. The plan was only one scenario considered, all of which we felt wasn’t right for Verona. We were very clear that this was not “the” plan, simply one idea that we discussed and rejected.

    Lastly, I think our BOE has been very consistent. Our message and our strategic plan aim to one goal – to uncork the excellence in all our students. Although we are in the top tiers of academic performance in the state, we force ourselves to compare only to the elite. We feel there is no reason our students shouldn’t perform as well as in some other comparable districts. Our focus, hiring, and planning all center around that. In no way does this Board feel that “adequate” is good enough, whether in Language or any other discipline.

    – John Quattrocchi
    BOE President
    [email protected]


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