ATHENS, GA. — Like many of his friends, Matthew Moye wasn't big on learning a foreign language back in high school. Despite his two years of basic Spanish, he doubts he'd be able to order a plate of nachos were he to find himself in Mexico City.
But now that he's a sophomore at the University of Georgia (UGA), Matthew has a different view of alternatives to English. Drawn to Italian by a charismatic professor, today he's all about the Romance languages, and is even considering a minor in Italian.
Still, he considers the time he spent in high school Spanish class a waste. "I don't think high school is necessarily the best time to be learning a second language," Matthew says. "I guess I'm conflicted."
The young man's uncertainty is echoed in a debate here in Georgia about the importance of learning a second language in high school. Under pressure to eliminate a dual-track diploma system, the Georgia Board of Education is considering dropping its merit track language requirement and adding a math requirement for vocational students.
As testing increases in core academic subjects, languages are an issue on a number of states' agendas. A few months ago, the New Jersey legislature made it easier for high-schoolers to have their foreign-language requirements waived.
Critics worry that turning foreign-language courses into electives will eventually lead to outright elimination of some language programs. And they say it's the wrong direction to go in at a time when the US is trying to engage the rest of the world in its causes.
"When there's renewed focus on budgets and core subjects, some things always go by the wayside, and that may now be happening with foreign languages," says Mary Fulton, a researcher at Education Commission of the States in Denver.
About 70 percent of Georgia's high-schoolers including all those on a merit, or college-bound, track take at least two years of Spanish, French, or Russian. Many say the proposal would not have a dramatic impact, because students aiming to go to college would still be likely to choose two years of language courses to fulfill admission requirements.
Advocates of the change also point out that Georgia would simply be joining the 30 states that currently have no foreign-language requirements for high schools.
"Learning a second language is important, but it's not a magic bullet," says Elizabeth Webb, who oversees foreign-language programs at the Georgia Department of Education in Atlanta. "The idea of going to one rigorous diploma has an awful lot of merit," even if that means the language requirement is eliminated, she says.
It's difficult to measure the effects of requiring foreign-language study. On the one hand, there's been a 65 percent increase in foreign-language minors at UGA in the past five years. But in high school, attendance drops off after the required two years. About 125,000 students take Level 2 Spanish in Georgia, but only about 16,000 go on to take Level 3.
Seeing that trend, some parents worry that taking away the mandatory aspect will make language classes more vulnerable to budget cuts. "Once they cross that line, it's not a big leap of faith to say, 'Guess what ... you don't have to have a foreign language to get a diploma, so why should we be paying for it?'" says Linda Steindorf, a parent in Fulton County.
But members of the committee working on the new course requirements say there's another key aspect of the language equation: grade-school courses. Today, 15 districts in Georgia teach foreign languages to preteens the most successful of such programs in the country, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.
After nearly eliminating that program last year, the state legislature plans soon to consider expanding it to all schools.
At the high-school level, instruction time is increasingly at a premium. "What tends to happen in education is, the people making policy, what they're good at they think everyone else should be good at, too," says Jim Boulet, director of the lobbying group English First. "The school day is becoming sort of a battleground for whatever the latest political idea is. The problem is, there are only so many hours in the day."
Foreign-language teachers defend their time in the schedule though, saying that when students learn another language, they are better able to process information in other subjects. In Georgia, students who take at least three years of foreign language in high school score higher on average on the verbal portion of the SATs than those who don't, according to UGA.
"Those years of foreign language in high school do a lot of good," says Doris Kadish, a French professor at UGA. "Students come to college so much better prepared to study and to express themselves. You learn a lot about your own language by studying other languages."
Even some who wouldn't be directly affected by the change are concerned that it would send a mixed message for Georgia host of the Summer Olympics six years ago to retreat from its focus on languages. The state is home to some 1,600 internationally owned businesses, not to mention populations of Somalis, Gambians, Swedes, Japanese, and dozens of other nationalities.
"When my exterminator says to me, 'At all the jobs I applied to they ask me if I'm bilingual' if that's what's happening throughout the economy, then this is not the time to eliminate this requirement," says Ms. Steindorf.
But even devotees like UGA linguist Joe McFall admit it's always been hard for Americans to muster up enthusiasm for the languages of foreign shores. Not only does the whole world seem to speak English, but many consider it part of the American immigrant spirit to want to assimilate into society by suppressing the mother tongue, which is why many second-generation immigrants speak only English.
Last year's terrorist attacks, too, may be playing a role in the language debate, to the extent that they caused some Americans to want to disengage from a seemingly dangerous world.
"In the last 20 years, people were beginning to say, 'That's great, you have an international heritage,' and people were learning languages and preserving the cultures of their ancestors," says Linda Wallinger, executive director of the American Council on Teachers of Foreign Languages. "But now, I often wonder whether we may go back to an insulation and isolation point of view, with Americans saying, 'We don't want anything to do with foreign cultures look what they did to us.' "