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If you hear a group of teenagers in your commissary’s checkout line speaking Chinese, chances are they’re not from Beijing or Shanghai.

They’re probably high school students practicing what they’ve learned in their Mandarin Chinese class. And they’re an example of a growing emphasis in schools nationwide, including Pacific-area DODDS schools, on proficiency — the ability to use the language in real-world settings — not just grammatical accuracy.

That means more practice using languages in everyday conversation, like a shopping trip to the commissary, going to restaurants, or videotaping school news programs in Mandarin, as some DODDS-Pacific classes did during the last school year.

"They’re not just learning out of a textbook," said Todd Kirby, a Department of Defense Dependents Schools instructional systems specialist.

Pacific DODDS schools are doing more than simply maintaining their existing foreign language programs, which include elementary school Spanish classes, immersion classes, Mandarin Chinese classes, and culture programs focused on each school’s host nation.

"What we are doing is expanding the existing programs that we have," said Peggy Bullion, education division chief, DODDS-Pacific/DDESS-Guam.

This year, DODDS will offer Spanish classes in kindergarten through third grade.

Nineteen of 27 DODDS-Pacific elementary schools will offer Spanish, and Bullion said DODDS hopes to expand the program to all schools if money becomes available.

But hiring additional foreign-language teachers is expensive, Bullion said. Instead, DODDS hopes to offer more immersion classes, regular classes that are taught mostly in English but incorporate basic foreign words and phrases into some of the lessons.

Bullion said immersion classes are an inexpensive way to offer more foreign language classes because the school doesn’t have to hire extra teachers. "In these tight budget times, we’re trying to be a little more creative and knowing that the resources might not come so easily ... we want to make sure that we do have some programs in place to bridge students from the lower grades into the middle school grades," Bullion said.

In year-end foreign language proficiency tests last spring, students scored well compared with other U.S. schools, and particularly well at the level of classes normally taken by freshmen and sophomores, Bullion said. The results of those pilot tests aren’t being released, but Bullion said they’ll be formalized this year.

Kirby said elementary school Spanish classes help wire students’ brains to learn more complex languages, like Arabic or Mandarin Chinese, when they’re older.

"You are aiming towards the ability to learn second languages that are not necessarily western European," he said.

Enrollment in Mandarin Chinese classes in middle and high schools has increased, and 10 schools are now offering the classes, up from seven last year.

"It seems to be that watching the Olympics in Beijing that has piqued interest," said Kirby.

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