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More students learning third language

LAWRENCEVILLE - Silvia Vaca remembers learning English at the age of 6 when she moved to the United States.

Now a high school sophomore, Vaca is among a growing number of bilingual Gwinnett County Public Schools students learning a third language.

"I didn't want to ... make an easy A," Vaca said of her decision to take Chinese instead of her native Spanish at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology. "I think (learning a foreign language) helps you understand the world better. Knowing two or three languages, that just opens up a lot more things."

While statewide enrollment in French, German and Latin classes has decreased, Gwinnett County Public Schools has experienced an increase. Enrollment in high school French classes has increased 37 percent in four years, and the number of high schoolers taking Latin has increased 29 percent, said David Jahner, the school system's foreign language director. German enrollment has increased 4 percent.

Jahner attributes some of that growth to the school district's diversity. For example, a student fluent in English and Spanish might choose to take French because it's closely related to Spanish. Both are Romantic languages.

"Once anyone has a second language under their belt, the third and other languages come quickly," Jahner said. "They've adapted to how to acquire another language."

Many bilingual students agree.

"When you first learn a second language, it's really hard," said Berkmar High School junior Jung Jang, a native Korean speaker who is taking Advanced Placement French. "When you go to a third, it's actually kind of easy."

Gerardo Jaime, a Peachtree Ridge High School senior and native Spanish speaker, said learning French was pretty easy. Then he tackled his fourth language: Chinese.

"It's difficult," he said. "You have to learn how to draw. You have to learn a new alphabet. ... It's a lot of memorization."

Jaime has a reason for acquiring foreign tongues.

"I think I can have a better future for myself if I learn more languages," he said.

Not all students who have studied multiple languages learned English as a second language. Peachtree Ridge High School student Shane LeMaster has taken Spanish and Chinese in school and studied Korean on his own.

"I like other cultures," LeMaster said of his drive to learn multiple languages. "It's a fun hobby for me."

LeMaster said he enjoys listening to Spanish radio stations and Chinese pop music. He also tries to speak the languages every day.

To receive a college preparatory high school diploma, Georgia students are required to take two years of a foreign language. The state, however, is eliminating the tiered diploma system, and members of the class of 2012 - currently high school freshmen - aren't required to take foreign language classes.

Students can choose to take a class such as Spanish, French or German as an elective, and schools will recommend they do so. Although the state is getting rid of its foreign language requirement, colleges and universities aren't.

The reason learning a foreign language is so important is because of the "flat" world in which we live," Jahner said.

"We are so connected with everyone around the world," he said. "Having that cultural understanding will only be to our advantage."