French classes face challenging times

January 22, 2015 — by Michelle Leung, Trevor Leung and Oksana Trifonova

A  lack of language options at the middle school level and competition from other electives have resulted in increasingly small French classes.

Fifteen students. That is the size of the current French 1 class that greets French teacher Kim Bergkamp every day.

A combination of the lack of language options at the middle school level and competition from other electives have resulted in increasingly small French classes, endangering the program as a whole.

“The biggest problem we have right now is that they are no longer offering [French classes] at Redwood [Middle School],” Bergkamp said, “so that’s what we’re up against, where kids want to come here, and start in a level two [in French].”

Without the head start that students get from beginning French classes in middle school, most can no longer reach French 5 without having some kind of background in French.

Several classes in the French program already hover dangerously near being cut. According to assistant principal Brian Safine, the administration generally opens classes depending on how many people sign up for the class.

“We will be able to serve students who want to take French provided there's enough to form full classes,” Safine said. “So we always look for classes that are in the low 20s to run. We would like to see a number of 20s, mid-20s in order to have continuity in the program.”

Sophomore Brite Wang, one of the last students to take French at Redwood, said that taking French early is key in his ability to learn the language.

“I came into high school knowing that I would take French for most, if not all, of my years and that was because of my experiences at Redwood,” Wang said.

While not as intensive as high school level language courses, middle school French “clearly defined what French culture was all about and brought out the passion that did or did not reside within.” He felt confident about continuing to take French in high school and laments the fact that students in the future will not get the same exposure to French in middle school as he did.

“By taking down the French program in Redwood, incoming students have not been exposed to their compatibility with French, and may view it as a risk rather than what it is meant to be,” Wang said.

Wang said that French has been less popular in California, as compared to Spanish and Chinese, because  it “may seem too foreign and impractical at first glance being that we live in a state where the other two languages are definitely not lacking.”

Although French has been particularly hard hit by the elimination of the beginning Redwood class, all language programs have been affected by the huge variety of electives at the school.

Bergkamp said many students choose to take another elective, such as journalism or orchestra, at the expense of a language course. The Media Arts Program (MAP) is another popular option that can eliminate some language options.

“They have to figure out ‘What am I going to do, advanced orchestra or French, am I going to do journalism, which I really love, or Spanish?’” said Bergkamp. “And that’s where they had to make decisions. In the past, they didn’t have to make those decisions.”

On the one hand, the low numbers in the five French classes are a bad omen for the future of the French program. On the other hand, Bergkamp does see the benefit of smaller classes, particularly for language courses.

“Having a smaller class means that they all get to participate, ask their questions, [and there is] more time to review,” Bergkamp said.

Wang said that he took French because it allows to “distance [himself] from social and academic pressure,” since not many other students know what it is like to take the class.

Wang said that contrary to the popular belief that French is becoming an obsolete language similar to Latin, it does have many useful applications. He’ll be able to “communicate with locals in Canada, France and some 30 other countries.”

For freshman George Yoshinaga, the elimination of middle school French classes has been a loss.

“Every summer it's [a] family tradition to go to Europe, and we usually go to France or some place where they speak French,” Yoshinaga said, “so it would be useful to know French.”

Because of this enthusiasm for French, Bergkamp and fellow French teacher Laura Lizundia believe that the SHS French program will weather the difficult times, but for now, the future is uncertain.

Safine said that the administration will wait to make decisions for next year until after students sign up for courses in February.

Bergkamp said that the French program hopes to talk to Redwood principal Kelly Green about possibly restarting a class. Lizundia said she hopes the French program remains at the high school despite enrollment difficulties.

“I’m hoping that it will just continue as it has been,” Lizundia said. “We’ll have five levels, as we’ve always have, and we’ve been doing that forever. And even though Redwood [discontinued] the program a couple years ago, we still have offered one here, so kids have come in with no experience and they start with us in [level] one, and that’s been fine.”

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