Christina Bunker wasn’t thinking about the global economy when she created the North Atlanta International Academy.
She opened the language immersion school in south Forsyth for her daughter to become culturally minded.
“When she was born, I said this is really something I want to explore and give her so she can have the same format that I grew up with,” said Bunker, who was raised bilingual in Belgium.
When the academy opened eight years ago, French and English were offered. Since then, however, the school has added German, Mandarin and Spanish, with each of the 70 students taking as many as three languages.
Bunker touts the advantages of being bilingual, including information retention, cognitive benefits and advancing intellectual growth. But speaking at least two languages likely will also help these students later in life.
James McCoy, president and CEO of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, said the ability to speak multiple languages lends a competitive edge to employers and job seekers.
“Business is increasingly far more global than it ever has been and will continue to be,” McCoy said. “You’re not doing business with just one country.
“There are companies that have a significant presence here in Forsyth County today that have operations in anywhere between two and 10 countries and speaking four or five different languages.”
While North Atlanta International features full language immersion, foreign language instruction is offered in many local schools, both public and private.
Pinecrest Academy in south Forsyth boasts Latin and Spanish at the Advanced Placement level, allowing students to obtain college credit.
“Latin is the foundation for all Romance languages,” said Ed Lindekugel, Pinecrest’s middle and high school principal.
“The study of Latin provides students with an advantage in standardized testing, the mastery of other foreign languages, and exposure to technical vocabulary used in professional fields such as medicine and law.”
Forsyth County’s public schools feature a variety of languages starting in seventh grade. Eighth-graders can earn high school credit in Spanish.
“To compete and engage in a global environment, we provide world language instruction in our middle and high schools,” said Jennifer Caracciolo, spokeswoman for the school system.
“In addition to Spanish, our high school students have world language options for French, German and Latin. Also, North Forsyth High School offers Russian, and Mandarin Chinese is offered at Lambert High School. When our students graduate, they possess multilingual skills that make them ready for college and career opportunities.”
Being multilingual, said McCoy with the chamber, opens opportunities for individuals to work in other parts of the world, or stay in the Forsyth area as a liaison between local and international operations for a company.
“It just makes you a more competitive employee,” he said. “It has gone from being an interesting academic opportunity to being something that makes you very competitive in the workplace.”
Future job opportunities are in the back of Emily Jensen’s mind. In the meantime, she’s enjoying the knowledge her two children — Smith, 4, and Collier, 2 — have gained at North Atlanta International.
“Both are in Mandarin and they just adore it,” she said. “Smith can read characters, he can write characters. They sing, they count. Everything they do, they want to do in Chinese.
“The kids like to teach us Chinese and it’s fun to learn with them … I would have thought Chinese is impossible to learn as an adult, but it’s fun the way the teachers teach the children and they can just turn around and teach the parents.”
According to Jensen, her son is on track to be able to carry on a full conversation in Mandarin within a couple of years. He can already understand most of what the teacher says.
Bunker attributes the comprehension to the immersion approach. All teachers are native speakers and use only that language in class. It gets a little tricky sometimes “because we’re trying to fit American standards into different languages.”
The academy, which runs through elementary school, is accredited by the Georgia Accreditation Commission and teaches “a full year ahead of the Georgia standards,” Bunker said. The ratio is one teacher for every seven or fewer students.