Priscilla Castro grew up enthralled with French culture despite understanding few words of the movies and music in which she delighted.
Now Castro’s facility with Spanish, which her family spoke at home, is serving as an unlikely bridge to mastering le Français in a unique Cal State Long Beach program designed to exploit Spanish speakers’ existing language skills.
“I’m not 100% fluent, but I can hold a conversation,” said Castro, 21, a journalism major. “A lot of things in Spanish are very similar, although because I learned Spanish at home, I didn’t know a lot of the grammatical rules. So learning French is actually helping me to improve my Spanish grammar.”
The French for Hispanophones program was developed more than five years ago but recently surged in popularity at the Long Beach campus, where more than 30% of students are Latino.
About 80 students were enrolled this fall in the French program, which has been such a success that a course in Italian for Spanish speakers was added this year. The university may double the number of class sections for each course next fall because of the demand, officials said.
The program has attracted the interest of linguistics educators from around the nation, including the Air Force Academy, which last year established a Portuguese course for Spanish speakers that is modeled on the Long Beach initiative.
“We realized from our own educational experiences that this kind of foreign language learning was a huge bonus, but what had never happened before was a strategic way of implementing courses that would be successful,” said Clorinda Donato, a professor of French and Italian at Long Beach and one of the program’s creators.
“It’s a highly innovative program, especially for the United States, where getting people to learn a language other than English is the first challenge, and teaching essentially a third language is an even greater accomplishment,” said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Assn.
“Research shows that once someone has learned a language other than their native tongue, it becomes increasingly easier to learn a third, fourth or fifth language,” Feal said. “Students doing this program will be uniquely advantaged if they want to go even further.”
Unlike traditional language programs that focus on the grammar and vocabulary of a single language, students in the French and Italian programs are taught to use similarities in their native language to better comprehend the new one.
The approach is especially effective with French, Spanish, Italian and other Romance languages. For example, the French verbs for “to know,” connaître and savoir, are similar in structure to the same verbs in Spanish, conocer and saber. Students in the Long Beach programs typically acquire skills in a single semester that would take a year in traditional programs, Donato said.
Students said they welcomed the accelerated pace.
“The masculine and feminine structure is similar, and that all came pretty easily,” said Jonathan Beaty, 22, a student of French who is fluent in Spanish. “The teacher doesn’t have to spend time on a lot of grammatical structures and can focus on other things.”
In another classroom, students were conversing in Italian and performing skits that would count toward their grades.
Jorge Gonzalez, who is taking Italian, said he studied abroad last year in Spain and was surprised during a trip to Italy to be able to communicate well in Spanish. He said he hopes that being trilingual will help his chances in a tough job market.
“I’m going into teaching, and it opens up so many more opportunities,” he said.
The Long Beach programs are thriving at a time when state and federal funding cuts have led many colleges and universities to eliminate foreign language degrees and graduate programs, despite growing demand by employers for foreign language proficiency. European language programs have been especially hard hit, as countries in the Middle East and Asia have gained economic and political clout.
The focus should be on expanding rather than restricting the language pool, especially in Southern California, which has a population of native Spanish speakers on which to build, said Etienne Farreyre, a cultural attache at the French Consulate in Los Angeles. The consulate initiated the Long Beach program and has provided funding and scholarship support.
“The program has proved that it works,” Farreyre said. “Once you learn those three languages, you can go all over the world.”
The Long Beach program was recently awarded a three-year, $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop French and Italian courses for Spanish speakers in high schools and community colleges. Long Beach instructors are also working with the University of Toulouse to develop specialized course materials.
Studying French has opened a world of possibilities for her, said Abril Calderon, a 2009 Long Beach graduate who works at a Los Angeles marketing firm.
“It allows me to tap into different markets and audiences,” said Calderon, 26, who also studied in France. “Something as simple as making a sales call and speaking Spanish or French can send a message and makes a huge difference in how relationships turn out. Personally, you feel more like a global citizen.”