The Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey is an non-profit organization that supports the learning of world languages throughout high schools in New Jersey. Every year, FLENJ runs a scholarship competition that offers high school seniors an opportunity to showcase their linguistic proficiency, dedication to learning, and love for a foreign language.
This year, PHS seniors Lila Abreu, Rhea Braun, Alana Chmiel, Eric Ham, Charles Jenkin, Patrick Sockler, and Architha Sudhakar together made up seven of the ten scholarship winners in the state, each winning a $1,000 scholarship toward college. The students won scholarships for their performances in Spanish, French, Japanese, Mandarin, or Italian.
After recommendation, the candidates respond to a written prompt in their language of study, supervised by their guidance counselor or World Language Supervisor Priscilla Russel. This prompt can vary in topic, often relating to community service or global issues. Russel said, “I think that Princeton kids are well positioned to perform with strong results in this [contest] because in our classes we are talking about global issues.”
After the competition is announced to students, the first step is a recommendation from a language teacher. Teachers nominate top students in their classes for the awards, and there is no limit to how many students a teacher or a school can nominate. “[The students] that are outstanding are the ones we nominate for the award … I think they enjoy the language [and] I can tell they are interested from the writing,” said Spanish teacher Martha Hayden. If any students take multiple languages, or are nominated by more than one teacher, they must choose just one language for which to compete.
Based on their written performances, which are sent back to FLENJ for assessment, 20 candidates in the state of New Jersey advance to the next level and participate in a graded conversation by phone. Afterwards, ten students in the state are chosen as winners.
Unlike the National Language Exams—language competency tests taken by students all over the country—the FLENJ competition is less focused on grammar and sentence structure. “It’s the type of competition … that we love here because our exams are performance-based assessments,” Russel said. “It’s not a grammar test.”
Because of the way that language is taught at PHS, teachers do not feel the need to prepare students specifically for the competition. Instead, students use skills and communication techniques they have built up through their years of study. “We do not train them for the award,” Hayden said. “The training goes on from kindergarten, when they start learning the language.”
To ensure student fluency, in-class activities and homework are designed to make students feel comfortable speaking and writing about a variety of topics in another language. “[In Spanish 6A] we do a lot of in-class discussions based on the movies we watch,” Chmiel said. “Speaking so much in class has really helped me the most … I think the essays that we wrote last year combined with all of the discussions we do in class this year, have really helped me become more fluent.”
At PHS, teachers focus not only on the grammar and syntax of the language students are learning, but also on cultural aspects. Teachers may educate students on social issues or foreign policies to introduce them to the societies of countries in which the languages are spoken. “We put a lot of cultural elements in our teaching,” Hayden said. “I like to connect the language to the real world.”
Another aspect of language taught to students is communication. Language teachers require all communication be through the instructed language. “The mantra we’ve adopted is that we strive to develop communicative competence and confidence in our students,” Russel said. “We create an immersion setting … This really lets students show what they can do with the language.”
To develop these skills and enhance the immersion, students also read texts in the language they are studying. Russel said, “[Students are] reading authentic literature which is something I’m quite pleased with, and [they are] talking about it.”
In addition to their school courses, students in some language classes get the opportunity to improve their fluency through school-organized trips to other countries. These exchange programs allow students to develop their communicative skills through full immersion in their language and culture, as opposed to their education in school. “You have to practice the language; it’s like a musical instrument,” said French teacher Sova Fisher. “You can’t learn it until you actually use it.”
Ham agreed that speaking to natives during travel to foreign countries is a great way to improve one’s proficiency. “The language program here lets you speak French but you do not get to speak with real native French speakers,” he said. “That was really useful both in terms of comprehension skills and being able to respond appropriately.”
According to Russel, other states like Maryland are more up to date with their language programs, compared to New Jersey. “New Jersey is actually so far behind in immersion programs. Around the country there are maybe 2,000 and [there are] 3 in New Jersey,” she said. However, a new immersion program will soon be instituted in Princeton at the elementary school level. “In September we’re going to start a dual-language program in kindergarten and first grade in Community Park school,” Russel said. “The day will be half in Spanish and half in English.”
However, not everyone is content with the focus on fluency and writing, as opposed to grammar and memorization. “I think there should be a lot more grammar taught, and a lot more memorization of vocabulary,” Ham said. “I know they do teach these things but they should be teaching them in lower levels of the courses so that we can actually fully communicate in the language.”
On the other hand, some students believe that grammar is necessary but do not believe that classes should be too structured. “You have to learn the basic vocabulary,” said Stefan Pophristic ’17. “But after that, instead of having a strict curriculum I think it would be more productive if the teacher could see what the students want to learn and then pull off of that.”
Yet despite certain reservations, many students share a love for learning languages. “Personally, I love language,” said Annie Sullivan-Crowley ’17. “I think it’s a really great idea that we’re applying the grammar and stuff to an actual situation instead of just learning it and never using it.”
Another significant benefit of the language programs is the possibility it offers students. “One of the great things with the PHS language programs … is that it has given me the opportunity to explore these different languages,” Ham said. “That has really given me a passion for learning languages. I think it has inspired me to keep up language studying.”
Similarly, Fisher believes that the PHS language department leaves a lasting impression on students that will stay with them, even when they are no longer studying languages. “I think Princeton High School kids come out of language programs being able to communicate in the language they are learning, and I think that’s great,” she said. “They can express themselves.”