At the high school in Paxton, Ill., students sat in their classroom this year listening to a fuzzy voice on a tape recorder recite a series of French vocabulary words. Nearby, a teacher was behind her desk ready to adjust the volume or pop a tape into the VCR for a lesson on French grammar.
If the students had any questions about the language they were studying, they were out of luck. Their teacher knew less French than they did.
''We were really struggling to find a French teacher,'' said Jim Flaherty, the principal at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School. But Flaherty said he won't subject students to lessons on tape next year. ''We finally decided that we just won't teach French in the fall,'' he said. ''It's just not right.''
Many schools across the country face a similar problem: They can't find enough foreign-language teachers. Teacher associations and school district recruiters say it's simply an issue of supply and demand. In a booming global economy, more students than ever want to learn foreign languages. But people who are fluent in a foreign language can make far more money as translators in the corporate world than as teachers on a public school payroll.
''I get calls weekly from superintendents and principals begging for candidates,'' said Jean LeLoup, an associate professor of Spanish at the State University of New York at Cortland. ''In the mid-1970s, you couldn't find a job teaching a foreign language; taking a foreign language was just not in vogue. But look at today. Everyone wants to know languages.''
Some schools, like Flaherty's, have dealt with the shortage by canceling classes. Others have resorted to using uncertified teachers or distance-learning programs. Some schools have filled slots by recruiting in France, Spain and Mexico; others have turned their English and social studies teachers into foreign-language instructors.
The demand for foreign-language classes has grown as parents and students have realized how marketable a second language is, said LeLoup, who is also a coordinator for Foreign Language Teach, a Web site for foreign-language teachers. And while U.S. schools used to start the lessons in high school, parents now want their children to begin much earlier.
From 1987 to 1997, the number of foreign-language students in elementary schools increased by nearly 10 percent, according to a study released last year by the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics. The study also found that teacher shortages were widespread.
LeLoup said universities need to encourage more of their students to become foreign-language teachers by telling them about the number of jobs available. But educators also say that young adults with language skills soon discover they can make twice as much money as translators.
''There are openings now in almost all major corporations for people who know a second language,'' said Harriet Barnett, a consultant at American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. ''And they offer bigger bucks than teaching.''
Anita Wicker, 30, could have earned a good income as a full-time translator but decided she wanted to teach. After graduating in May from Arkansas State University, she got 19 job offers to teach Spanish in public schools. She took a job at a high school in West Memphis, Ark.
But she will supplement her $27,750 starting teacher's salary by translating at a factory where many Mexican immigrants work, a job that will pay her $75 an hour. And she also will work part time in the court system, which pays translators $300 a day.
Wicker said many students at her university were majoring in foreign languages, but most planned to go into international business.
Some school officials say part of the answer is to let schools hire foreign-language speakers who want to teach without making them go through the normal certification process, which involves many courses in education. Others are dubious of that approach, fearing a lowering of teaching standards.
A few schools in California, Colorado and New Mexico have persuaded teachers of other subjects to get retrained as foreign-language teachers, using this carrot: a language-immersion program in a foreign country. Several educators say more schools need to offer that incentive.
There have been several federal grants to send teachers to Spain and Mexico for retraining, said Mike Wittig, at the National Registration Center for Study Abroad. ''You make it appealing for teachers to learn a language,'' Wittig said.
An increasing number of schools are importing foreign-language teachers from French- and Spanish-speaking countries. Typically, these are instructors who taught English as a foreign language in their native country, and they seem to have little trouble making the switch. One advantage of this approach is that the teachers can share their culture with their U.S. students.
Spain has sent several hundred Spanish teachers to schools across the United States.
Dollie Zimmerman, who was born in Argentina and has spent most of her life in Spain, moved from Madrid last year to teach Spanish in Bolivar, Tenn., for three years under an agreement between the Tennessee and Spanish governments.
Her husband, Eugenio Cormick, also a teacher, is not part of that program but found a similar job right away. He is teaching Spanish to summer school students in Memphis public schools.
''I came here and there were so many jobs,'' said Cormick, who works hard to share his culture with his students.
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