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Indiana may add honors for bilingual graduates

Alan Petersime

Efforts to boost foreign language learning in Indiana are winning strong support at the Statehouse this year.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Education Committee today praised a bipartisan bill that would add a special seal of accomplishment to the diplomas of high school graduates who learned a second language well enough to qualify as fully bilingual.

Senate Bill 267 is co-authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee from Auburn, and the Senate’s Democratic leader, Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson.

The bill would award the graduation seal for what it calls “biliteracy” when a student takes a minimum number of credit hours in English and foreign language classes and passes a foreign language exam. The Indiana State Board of Education would specify how many credits are needed and choose the test if the bill becomes law.

Biliteracy is intended to require that students go beyond simply being able to converse in a second language.

“It’s the ability to speak, read, write and understand two different languages,” said Pamela Gemmer, a retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher who spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the Indiana Foreign Language Teachers Association and two other groups.

“It’s bipartisan,” Gemmer said, “and it doesn’t cost. We want our youngsters to be proud of their ability to function in a second language.”

Students learning English as a second language could also earn the seal if they can demonstrate proficiency in both their native language and English, Lanane said.

“It’s recognition for an individual who can show proficiency in two languages,” he said. “It is to encourage our students to be biliterate.”

The bill would recognize students who can show they are bilingual in “modern languages” but also in Latin, American Sign Language, Native American languages and other “native languages.”

But the bill could soon go further to encourage foreign language learning.

Committee Chairman Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he planned to amend Senate Bill 267 when the committee meets again on Thursday so it would also establish a dual language immersion pilot program. A vote is also expected on Thursday.

Behning authored House Bill 1635, which would create a pilot program to establish programs that would allow students to learn half the day in a foreign language like Chinese, Spanish or French.

He modeled the program after a similar effort in Utah, which he said has spurred widespread dual-language immersion, especially in Chinese languages.

Behning traveled to China last year said he returned believing more Hoosier children learning Chinese languages could give the state an advantage as that country becomes an increasingly important U.S. trading partner.

But House Bill 1635, he said, has been assigned to the budget-making Senate Appropriations Committee and he is unsure of its fate there. So instead he hopes to pair the immersion pilot idea with the graduation seal by creating a broader version of Senate Bill 267 to encourage language learning in two ways.

Both ideas have lots of support among legislators. Senate Bill 267 passed the Senate last month 50-0 and House Bill 1635 passed the House 95-0.

Representatives of the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana Federation of Teachers also both testified for the bill today.

The federation’s lobbyist, Sally Sloan, said she believed the graduation seal will have the impact its advocates are hoping for.

“I think it will be a huge motivator for students and helps fill a need for students with a passion for languages,” she said. “It will help the global economy too.”

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