With American Sign Language at the top of the line-up, Elisabeth Harrington, Arlington Public Schools Supervisor for World Languages, pointed out to the crowd that ASL is now offered in four APS high schools. It is one of the fastest growing language programs in Arlington. “It is beautiful to see the students enter the culture of hearing impaired as they learn to sign,” Harrington said. This was a theme throughout the program: you don’t just learn a language, you appreciate the culture it inhabits. You learn more than words: the traditions, the dances, the music, the history, the culture. You “become” French or Chinese when you speak it, and you learn that the “different” culture is not so different after all.
Language learning was life changing for at least one student who showcased her ASL skills. Violet Moore said she was scheduled to take French but didn’t find a French teacher who was a good fit. She took ASL and is now in her fourth year. She is doing an ASL project at the Career Center as her “Capstone,” and has applied to colleges that specialize in ASL. “I was going to take French but after two weeks in ASL class I realized I wanted to be an interpreter, that this would be a lifelong passion and that I would go to college to perfect it.” Moore said everyone should study ASL. “It has so many practical uses and can even be used with (and by) autistic individuals who find it easier to communicate with ASL.” Justin, a stand-out ASL signer because of his eye contact, was proficient even as an eighth grader at Jefferson Middle School. He attributed his desire to learn ASL to his mother and grandmother, who both know ASL and “like to do things for other people.”
Everyone had different motivations for learning the language they chose. Several students with backgrounds or family from the Arab world wanted to learn more about their culture and language: but one student just wanted to know a language her mother couldn’t speak.
The origin story performed by Washington-Liberty students in Chinese was enlightening – and a little frightening – when the lions “menaced” the crowd with their bulging eyes and teeth. But it did answer a question many may have had about why there is so much of the color red, fireworks, and clanging cymbals during the Chinese New Year celebrations.
One of the most impressive aspects of the program was oral proficiency. The fluent Chinese sounded just right, and the poetry written by the French students in Danielle Karaky’s class was delivered with just the right intonations. Cody Cambron, a senior who is in his fifth year of Chinese, said he started learning the language in seventh grade at Kenmore MS, which he thinks is why his accent is so good. “If I had to do something differently, though, I’d do more language during summer break because you lose a lot between semesters. And the pandemic was really damaging to language study, but our teacher is fantastic and got us over that hurdle.” He looked over and smiled as he recognized his seventh grade Chinese teacher in the crowd. “In fact, all the language teachers I’ve had have been fantastic.”
Those teachers were glowing during the celebration. Janet Luu, who taught the Chinese speakers at Washington-Liberty, said her students worked hard and loved the language. “They are all fluent in Chinese now. Really fluent.”
And this was the key aspect of the celebration. Each of the students was guided by a very engaged language teacher. It was hard not to notice the bond between the teachers and students. These were the “children of the pandemic,” performing for the first time. Their teachers were like parents before the first play. That relationship – between the teachers and students, and the students themselves – is one of the reasons language learning is so valuable: it’s about connections, communication, emotion, self-expression, and taking risks in a safe place. The German teacher was evidently proud and supportive of his student. The Japanese teacher was so pleased when her students got through their song. Cues were given and received. The students were learning something that made sense to them, released tension, and formed their identities.
“All eight of our languages [taught in APS] were performed today, “ said Harrington. “At APS, we have students from 149 countries who speak 88 different languages.” Students from diverse backgrounds, and the parents who watched them, delighted in seeing some of their culture represented in school.