Texas schools saying auf Wiedersehen to German programs


by By JESSICA MEYERS / The Dallas Morning News jmeyers@dallasnews.com


Posted on October 14, 2009 at 10:24 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 21 at 4:07 PM

Posters of snow-capped castles, Oktoberfest revelry and Albert Einstein decorate the walls of Claudia Keller's classroom in Frisco. She's only missing students. Six attend her AP German class, the only one in the school district.

Across the country, German is sputtering next to its garrulous Spanish competitor, and now Mandarin is grabbing the spotlight.

With only a handful of Frisco school district students in Claudia Keller's AP German class at Heritage High School, they're sure to get lots of attention. German has the lowest enrollment - about 200 students - of all foreign languages offered in the district, also the case in Richardson.

Even in Texas, a state once known for its meat-and-potatoes heritage and annual polka festivals, German's lost the love.

The battle of the tongues is tight. Foreign languages remain a low priority among American students, who start later and study fewer years than counterparts in many other countries. Teachers blame this language loss on budget constraints and a heavier focus on core subjects such as science and math.

But they also point to a societal crutch: Students know they can always rely on English. This leaves German teachers trying to prove that languages have value and that German is still worth it.

"These days we're just happy when kids are taking any language," said Helene Zimmer-Loew, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of German. "It's pitiful. And I have a feeling German might be one of the losers."

National membership in the group has dropped by 2,000 in a little more than a decade, she said. Hawaii is down to five members.

About 200 students study German in Frisco ISD, compared with more than 3,000 enrolled in Spanish classes. It's the least-celebrated language in the district, behind even American Sign Language. It also has the smallest enrollment in Richardson, where Japanese and Latin are more popular. Highland Park and Lovejoy ISD have dropped their German programs and taken up Mandarin instead.

Shrinking numbers

This collective disinterest had the opposite effect on Frisco High School senior Chase Porter, a student in Keller's AP class. "Everybody else takes Spanish," he said, "so I went for German."

Porter is one of a handful of students who study a language throughout high school. Texas students are required to take only two years of foreign language, and in many area schools, at least half don't continue.

That mirrors the rest of the country. Nationwide, less than half of students take foreign languages in public high school, according to the most recent report from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The percentage of students enrolled in these classes has crept up just 2.5 percentage points since 1990.

The numbers are flipped in Europe. About 60 percent of high school students in the European Union studied at least two foreign languages in 2007, according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Communities. Only 6 percent didn't study at least one.

"There just doesn't seem to be as much of a push here to find and embrace solutions to language deficits," said Steve Ackley, a spokesman for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "There's a lot of lip service but languages are not being translated into things schools are graded on."

Beverly LeMaster, a retired German teacher who taught in North Texas for 30 years, said that mentality plays almost as significant a role in marginalizing language classes as funding does.

"Part of it is good old American arrogance," she said. "Haven't you heard, 'I don't need to learn another language; everyone speaks English?' "

The educational structures in place reinforce that notion, LeMaster said.

"We're not immersing them at an early age, and we're teaching them one hour a day," she said. "By the end of two years, it's impossible to have any fluency."

German's suffering even more because it can no longer draw on the intrigue of ancestral ties or frequent exchange programs, said Gray Westmoreland, president of the Texas German Society and a former German teacher in Yoakum, Texas.

"Young people just don't seem to be interested in cultural heritage," he said. "It's a real pitfall in teaching this language."

Influence on Texas

The German influence in Texas stretches back to the 19th century, when job opportunities and open land brought thousands to Central Texas. The community expanded, leaving legacies like the town of New Braunfels and Shiner beer. More than 2.7 million Texans claim German ancestry, according to the 2008 American Community Survey done by the Census Bureau. More than 112,000 Collin County residents report German heritage, nearly 15 percent of the population.

Backlash from the World Wars silenced a number of German speakers, but German language study gained popularity again as a result of the Cold War. Texas became a prime location for military bases as did Germany, where many American soldiers landed at some point in their careers. And military children like Kevin Lariscy returned to Texas hoping to continue their language study.

He remembers full classes at Lamar High School in Arlington in the late 1980s. Almost two decades later, he struggles to speak more than a few pleasantries - even though he lives in New Braunfels, with one of the oldest German communities in Texas.

"There is definitely an influx of other cultures watering down the tradition," he said, adding that taquerias now outnumber delis.

A reshaped ethnic landscape doesn't mean German shouldn't still get credit in public high schools, said Frisco's Keller as she joked with her small batch of students about pronoun placement.

She points out that Germany is the world's biggest exporter and Europe's largest economy. It's a leader in research and high-tech products. German tourists are the largest spenders of vacation money in the world. And its lively punk and metal music scene spawned a generation of imitators.

Foreign languages, she said, "open us to different cultures so that not everything is Texas, America."

Then she smiled and gave a courtesy nod. One student had just roared from across the room: "No English!"