Fabrice Jaumont walked out of the French Embassy's mansion on Fifth Avenue with boxes containing books, DVDs and CDs in his native tongue.
He loaded them into the trunk of a car. Destination: the Bronx.
The 35-year-old diplomat was headed to the public Jordan L. Mott middle school in one of the U.S.'s poorest districts, where on Tuesday, some students will arrive for science and other classes - taught in French.
Four new dual-language programs are starting in the city this fall. Three are in French, for the first time, including one at a school in Manhattan's Harlem area, and the fourth is in Chinese.
"It's about time," says Jaumont, the education attache at the French Embassy in Manhattan, the cultural branch of the main embassy in Washington.
"This is a competitive country, and if Americans want to compete globally, they won't be first anymore if their language skills are not good," says the energetic young diplomat, whose English is peppered with American jargon.
The new programs are part of a national trend to teach American children subjects such as math, social studies and science in a foreign language. This fall, several hundred thousand youngsters across America are headed to taxpayer-funded classes taught in Spanish, Hebrew, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian and other languages.
On Manhattan's Lower East Side, children at the public Shuang Wen Academy spend much of their school day in classes taught in Mandarin Chinese. The school is so popular among parents of non-ethnic Chinese children eager to prepare their offspring for a changing world that there is a waiting list for admission.
In each class, about half the students are fluent in Chinese, the other half in English; some are immigrants, others American-born. That fifty-fifty approach is applied to more than 10,000 other New York City children who voluntarily signed up for the city Department of Education's 67 dual-language programs (compared to 51 in 2004). Each child also starts with separate lessons in the language.
The students end up helping one another with a second language, while learning a subject together. "It's very organic," says Shimon Waronker, 38, principal at the Mott school.
The thought of taking a social science class in French excited 11-year-old Pamela Cruz, who is already fluent in English and Spanish.
"I didn't like school that much. Now I really want to go," says the sixth-grader, who also signed up for guitar classes in French, a language she says "sounds kind of funny, but beautiful."
Her father, Enio Cruz, a Guatemalan immigrant who works as a housekeeper, is thrilled. "It's good for her future," he says. "She'll be able to meet more people and have more chances to work better."
In a global economy where about 1 billion people speak Chinese, and almost 400 million Spanish, the two languages are at the top of the list of classes taught in a foreign language at more than 300 public schools in the U.S.
More than two-thirds are in Spanish, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization that researches issues related to language in a society. About 14,000 children are taking classes in French - including in Chicago, Miami, Boston and Washington, says Jaumont.
Not to be confused with controversial bilingual education designed to mainstream non-English-speaking children, subjects taught in a foreign language are designed to make a child fluent in speaking and writing two languages. Most of the children start such classes already in elementary school, or even in kindergarten.
There are more than twice as many American public school students getting a multilingual education now as there were a decade ago, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.
U.S. government funding of such education is fueling a heated question: Does it make sense for American public school children to learn in foreign languages, at taxpayers' expense?
"Absolutely," says Waronker, 38, whose Bronx school population is 80 percent Hispanic and 20 percent black. Mott was once among New York's so-called "Dirty Dozen" schools, where drugs-and-violence driven gangs ruled until Waronker arrived three years ago.
Of a total 700 students, 120 in the fifth and sixth grades (the last two years of elementary school) have signed up for science and social studies classes taught in a foreign language - 60 in Spanish and 60 in French. The school has a few dozen students who come from French-speaking Africa.
"What we've seen here is that students who take languages do better in other subjects, and they score better on standardized tests," says Waronker, a Chilean-born Orthodox Jew who was once a U.S. Army intelligence officer.
That is his answer to critics who argue the new approach comes at the expense of traditional teaching that prepares a student for mainstream American life.
At his school, the principal has added a little bonus: Physical education taught in German by an Austrian coach.
Maria Santos, who heads the Department of Education's office of English language learners, said research supports the conclusion that "the brain benefits from learning two languages. It gains much more flexibility, in any subject."
French is spoken by about 250 million people in more than 50 countries but is no longer the most commonly used international language of diplomacy - English is. Asked whether French remains a good choice despite the rise of other languages, the polyglot Bronx principal smiles.
"When kids learn other languages, they start seeing connections and the mind develops faster - it doesn't matter what language it is," says Waronker, who speaks English, Spanish and Hebrew. "The goal of such an education is to build confidence in a child, to make a better American citizen who can fit in anywhere."
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