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Why is foreign language in the PAUSD taught at such a frenetic pace?

Original post made by Joe, Old Palo Alto, on Sep 10, 2013

I am fluent in 3 languages. When I was in school here in the Bay Area, I took 6 years of French and learned the language well while receiving top marks and proficient to navigate through Paris ten years later. I was challenged but able to perform. Fast forward to Palo Alto, 2013. Why is nearly every foreign language within the PAUSD system taught at such a frenetic rate? I think the curriculum is out of touch with reality. My kids end up spending more time studying for the foreign language classes, not to mention with tutors galore than their other core classes. Do the teachers and the school district realize that nearly all of these kids are not planning to be either linguistics majors or foreign language majors in college? Any insights from the community would be welcomed as I am completely perplexed.

Comments (27)

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 10, 2013 at 7:06 am

IMHO foreign language *is* the core curriculum. Most other export-driven economies get that and emphasize foreign languages accordingly, and it's high time we do as well.

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 10, 2013 at 7:29 am

Teaching foreign language in elementary school (FLES) has been discussed and dismissed for many years. Although many parents want it, PAUSD seem to think it unnecessary and onerous to include in the elementary schedule.

Posted by we can't do better
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2013 at 9:10 am

Because this is palo alto and everything is taught at a frenetic pace in high school. What part of "stress" don't you understand?

Posted by unfortunately
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 10, 2013 at 2:29 pm


Since the district does not offer foreign language in elementary school (FLES), you must be referring to either a middle school or high school class.

I believe the High Schools will now accept credit for Language courses taken elsewhere, and put them on your transcript.

So, if you have the money, you can get your credits in an independent study school like SIL or Lydian which I understand are much easier, and probably the same as the cost of a tutor. You may even learn more with them.

Nobody is going to care where you studied your foreign language, so I would take this route.

Sadly, those who cannot afford it, and hope to apply to a UC, have to take it in the schools. GIven what you know about how hard these classes can be, it's grossly unfair that those who cannot afford it cannot escape.

Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:11 pm

2 years of a Foreign Language is now a graduation requirement, it started with the Class of 2016. In theory, the District will only let you take classes at places like Lydian "under exceptional circumstances" and with prior permission. Almost all college require at least 2 years of a language for admission, not just the UC's. One way to get around this is to take a class not offered at Paly or Gunn (Latin for example). If they can't offer the same class, they are much more likely to let you take it outside of school. BTW - my daughter's Spanish teacher told her with less than a B in Spanish 1, there was no way she could handle Spanish 2. Seemed a little odd to me...

Posted by Sheila
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 10, 2013 at 7:37 pm

French and Spanish are immersion - no English allowed in class. In other districts, they are allowed to speak English in class. It's only in AP that they don't allow English. If two years is now a high school requirement, PAUSD ought to dumb it down a bit and leave the rigor for the Honors and AP students. World Language is not easy for everyone.

Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2013 at 6:10 am

@ Joe,
Thank you for posting this question. PAUSD uses college level textbooks for 9th graders and makes the courses a graduation requirement. If the misguided folks at UC's are going to require world language for entrance, PAUSD should at least support our students and create lanes like they have in every other subject. How about letting a computer language or a linguistics course substitute?

Posted by Back in the day...
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2013 at 8:13 am

When I was a child in elementary school, the kindergarten teachers were teaching us Spanish. As a class, we were doing quite well and having fun with it: we learned the names of animals, colors, alphabet, numbers, and basic courtesy phrases when a group of parents took on the school board. Their objection was that this was the language of migrant workers and should not be taught to us. So after less than one semester. Our Spanish lessons came to an abrupt halt.

Were the language French or German, it may have been allowed to continue, but we were not allowed to learn a language in school again until seventh grade, and, not surprisingly, it was much, much harder than it had been in kindergarten!

Now I am a grandparent, and my granddaughter has been learning German and Polish since infancy ( she is two ). She also knows the common courtesy phrases and greetings in Spanish and French, and for her, it has been quite easy learning multiple languages as she learns her native one.

Consensus: do as they do in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, and Germany and start teaching children one or more foreign languages as soon as they start school!

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2013 at 8:44 am

@parent All of Silicon Valley's big successful industries and companies do 25-75% of their revenues outside the U.S., which IMHO makes being fully fluent in at least one language as fundamental to career success as math, writing or history, and quite arguably more important than programming or other technical skills.

As someone whose entire career has been enabled by random events that led to me speaking one other language fluently, I can't emphasize enough how much easier life will be for every student whose parents make foreign language fluency (not to be confused with mere 'proficiency') the primary academic goal they set their children to.

Posted by unfortunately
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2013 at 10:08 am


If it's an academic goal, starting in high school with a college level book makes no sense, so in PAUSD it may be better to take it outside of the schools and in High School get a credit on your transcript.

paly parent,

I thought the rules had changed altogether or that it's available only for "exceptional circumstances." It's pretty exceptional circumstances to have to learn a college level class in 9th grade with no previous education on the subject.


" leave the rigor for the Honors and AP students. World Language is not easy for everyone."

There really should be two lanes with a different book too.

Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 11, 2013 at 10:18 am

Unfortunately - the fact that the District will only let you take classes outside of Paly/Gunn "under exceptional circumstances" and with prior permission was taken from the PAUSD website.

Using a college text book, not allowing any English, requiring it as a grad requirement is pretty hard.

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 11, 2013 at 10:29 am

The methodology of teaching languages in Palo Alto is archaic. It is not so noticeable now since there are websites which the students use at home for homework, but there is no technology used in the classroom. A few years ago when I asked a teacher about this I was told there were some videos that students could take home but they couldn't play them in the classroom as there was no tv. This was long after most of us no longer had vcrs and dvds were the norm. The fact that not only vcrs were not at school but there were no dvds or other technology for using in the classroom showed just how little emphasis has been put on foreign language in PAUSD.

Foreign language technology has been around for decades, but it seems that text books and work books have always been the methodology for instruction here.

It is about time 21st century teaching and attitudes towards foreign language happened here.

Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 11, 2013 at 10:59 am

Back in the day (early sixties) at Hoover Elementary (the original Hoover) we were pledging allegiance to the flag in Spanish, and nobody complained. As a ten year old visiting Ensenada on a family road trip I found my accumulated skills with the language quite useful. Switching to German in Junior High, where study was more serious (and English in class highly discouraged), I learned a tremendous amount about grammar, tenses and parts of speech that I had always taken for granted in English. Although I never counted myself fluent in any second language, and have never really needed to be, the absence of serious foreign language instruction would have left a big hole in my education and awareness of the world around me.

My idea of "a frenetic pace" would be the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. Sounds like fun, actually.

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2013 at 11:13 am

As an aside, I learned about a startup called that seems to have a great solution for learning languages. [I have no affiliation with them.]

Posted by Back in the day...
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2013 at 11:33 am

One of my friends took German at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. She still says it was the best thing she ever did!

Posted by Way Too Difficult
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 11, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Agree that world language at Jordan and Paly are way too torturous. One of my children excelled in Spanish after needing a tutor to help jump start him. He witnessed many confused and frustrated students and sympathized. There are many students who try Spanish at Jordan but drop out because it's too rigorous. What a shame, because teachers should want their students to succeed. They should allow some English in Spanish 1 classes. End the torture!

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 11, 2013 at 1:45 pm

My son suffered through Spanish at Jordan, and now at Paly. He is lost and told me that he feels that he will not be able to pass the class.
We are not able to afford a tutor. Apparently he won't be able to graduate high school because he can't pass Spanish. The suffering through these Spanish classes has been so much that he has told me that he never wants to learn a foreign language.
I thought beginning classes were meant to inspire young people to want to learn more.

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 11, 2013 at 3:09 pm

As a former parent, I am so surprised at this thread. The foreign language classes used to be sooooo basic (and without tech, for sure) and they dropped German. This thread shows how much conditions can change in our schools.

Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 11, 2013 at 3:13 pm

If we're going to require a foreign language to graduate, it is crazy not to introduce foreign languages in grade school. Because of the way the brain develops, it is easier for kids before adolescence to pick up the accent and basics of a language than it is later. By introducing foreign languages in seventh grade, we start teaching kids foreign languages just when it becomes harder for them. Even pretty basic stuff, like Ohlone's after-school languages once a week, has turned out to be helpful. It really is a lot like learning a musical instrument--your brain kind of develops a language-learning groove.

That said, immersion *is* an effective way to teach foreign languages, but it should be real immersion--i.e. several hours a day. I've thought for a while what we need instead of dual-immersion programs in Mandarin and Spanish, which reach only a small number of children are inexpensive summer-immersion programs. One of the things that holds people back, in my experience, is that they do avoid speaking in languages in which they're uncomfortable.

Parent, with languages, repeated exposure helps. Even if you can't afford a tutur, watching TV in Spanish will help, just because the repetition is there. Maybe there's a trade of some sort you can make with a Spanish-speaker around here?

Posted by ForeignFolly
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 11, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Many parents k ow that Jordan Spanish is a ton of busy work and taught too hard. This pattern continues in Paly. Teaching beyond uc/csu rigor is pointless torture. PAUSD has a well established pattern here.

I can speak to the local business needs for foreign language: there is none. It won't slow your career at all. I have worked 25 years in 3 multinationals, been stationed overseas, been sent on business countless times to Japan, Singapore, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany, Netherlands, England, and Canada.

All this with ZERO foreign language in high school, 1 semester in college, and 1 course in community college fo fun. How you ask?

Easy - I speak English and programming languages (multiple). That, and a willingness to pickup phrases along the way is what is needed. Sure some people may be appalled at this can- do approach, but the reality in business today is that you are NOT going to visit one country which happens to match your studies in high school. You have to be prepared to go to ANY country on a weeks notice.

So high school language is pointless.

If you want to meet the needs of high tech, teach the kids programming for 2 years. And by programming, I don't mean some watered down syntax course - use programming to teach higher level thinking skills like abstraction, problem decomposition, integration, synthesis. These skills are sorely lacking in the regular core classes, and easily demonstrated with programming.

Oh, then to address the real language needs they could take 1 semester to learn 20 phrases in 20 languages. And cultural awareness - that with politeness and English will get you farther than 4 years of group-and-drill Spanish.

Posted by Never fails
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Sep 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm

It always happens, as soon as teachers make learning tortuous, kids stop learning. learning does not have to be painful, cut there are a.ways educators who feel otherwise. Unfortunately, in most public schools, those are the majority.

Posted by ForeignFolly
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 11, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Sorry for auto fails in that posting: group-and-drill should be grill-and-drill.

Posted by unfortunately
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Foreign folly,

"abstraction, problem decomposition, integration, synthesis. "

I think these are among the skills you gain when you learn any language.

Posted by New in Town
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 11, 2013 at 9:54 pm

While there are many benefits to learning a foreign language while young - it develops the brain and is a wonderful cultural asset - I agree with ForeignFolly, that one who is completely fluent in spoken and written English can do quite well globally as long as they are culturally sensitive.

I've worked in the global groups for two multinationals and traveled throughout Europe, Latin America, Korea, Japan, China, Singapore (4 languages are official there) and all meetings and correspondence were conducted in English. I'm not a programmer either! Knowing some French gave me credibility as an American who had a clue about other countries and cultures, but it was merely for social reasons, that it was useful.

If you have a parent or cultural tie to another country or might live there, by all means invest in that language. It's a great asset and experience. I do wish I were fluent in multiple languages and envy those whose life experiences have allowed them immersion. All polyglots I know, learned their second and often third language before their teen years through a fluent parent, nanny or living in the other country. It is easier. And please, I hope schools are using all the multimedia technology available to us now.

Posted by unfortunately
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I agree that to work you only need English, at least for work in an english speaking country, and for traveling only English is necessary.

Problem is, somebody needs to let the UCs sand colleges know this because they are the ones requiring it.

It's probably the more torturous requirement and summer or other outside classes must be better if you can get credit for it.

Posted by Joe
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 12, 2013 at 11:47 pm

Thanks All for the very helpful comments from parents and folks from the community. The themes from the postings include the following: 1) an exposure to foreign language can potentially be relevant, 2) foreign language may potentially be helpful, but not always mandatory, for global business lines of work later, 3) if starting foreign language in middle / high school (not in grade school) then the approach should be balanced and not tortuous, 4) starting at college level for beginners in foreign language is excessive, 5) More contemporary technology approaches to learning foreign language should be integrated at school, and 6) PAUSD should consider more than one lane for teaching foreign language; this could meet the needs of those who pick up languages easier or started earlier and also those who are aiming to simply meet the graduation requirement. Perhaps this last key point is really something the school district should think about?

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Escondido School

on Jun 5, 2017 at 6:37 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

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