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When English speaking children enter language immersion programs in this country they typically find that their teacher speaks to them in a language they don’t understand between 50% and 100% of the day. Immersion teachers use a variety of techniques, most notably exaggerated speaking styles and animated body language, to make themselves understood. About half of the class are native English speakers, and it’s not uncommon for students to hear English spoken in the halls by parents, other teachers, and school administrators. English-speaking immersion students know they are learning a second language at school and that their native language dominates everywhere else.
It is common to compare English speaking students’ experience in an immersion program to that of an immigrant thrust into an English-only classroom, but the comparison does not hold up. An immersion teacher’s job is to get the students to understand the language so that they can also teach the content—math, reading, social studies—as effectively as possible. Mainstream teachers were hired and trained to teach content in English, not to teach English as a second language. Whereas my kids’ teachers could make up their own language and effectively use it to teach math concepts, mainstream English teachers teach, by and large, from an assumption of fluency.
When most non-English-speaking immigrant children come to the US and enroll in school, they are simply placed in a mainstream English classroom, and English is spoken all day and everywhere. They may find common language peers in their same situation, and it’s likely those kids will stick together whenever possible rather than integrate with their English-speaking classmates. This type of instruction has been dubbed “submersion” because it is akin to pushing people into water without teaching them to swim.
Unfortunately, submersion instruction happens all over the world and is one of the main reasons heritage languages such as those spoken by Native Americans and minority tribes elsewhere are dying out altogether. Children may eventually become literate in the dominant language, but not in their mother tongue. In fact, depending on circumstances, they may lose their native language altogether, thereby losing ties with their family and culture and never having the benefit of full linguistic proficiency that comes with native fluency.
Of course many talented mainstream English teachers do their best to reach every student (and do so with success) regardless of their own formal training and experience, but even the most sensitive, well-intentioned teacher may fall into habits borne of teaching in an all-English environment. In a monolingual environment, for instance, there is nothing wrong with lecturing with one’s back to the class while writing on the whiteboard, but such practices cannot help ELLs get up to speed either in language or academic subjects. By the time these students get a handle on the dominant language, they are often so far behind in the content that achieving academic proficiency has become a formidable struggle.
Two-way immersion programs, when implemented properly, create bilingual students from distinct native language backgrounds. ELLs do not receive specialized or remedial instruction (unless it is otherwise indicated, in the case of learning disabilities, for example). Both English language instruction and content instruction in English are increased as the students progress, and the dominant language, English, is supported in commerce, the media, and in the community at large. Native English speakers enrolled in immersion do not suffer from a lack of guidance in the use of their mother tongue. Indeed, both ELLs and native English speakers tend to outpace their peers in monolingual programs before middle school.
When children of different language backgrounds are combined in classrooms led by effective, bilingual teachers, multilingual adults with greater cross-cultural understanding and deeper knowledge of most academic subjects are the end product, and these individuals can speak for themselves–in more than one language.
While I personally espouse the obvious benefits of multilingualism, some people just don’t see the point in learning a second language. They have no plans to travel or work outside their home country, and they find memorizing vocabulary and working their way through foreign grammar a mind-numbing waste of time. They also feel that their kids can decide for themselves whether or not to pursue another language when they’re old enough. Some people are certain that even if they do learn to communicate in a second language, they will never use that skill. So why bother?
Well, it turns out that studying foreign languages is a lot like eating your vegetables: it’s good for you, even if you don’t like it (or won’t use it). And, also like the vegetables, the earlier you start, the more beneficial it is.
Researchers are making huge gains in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and one of the most exciting things they have learned is that, in addition to broadening horizons, increasing job opportunities, and the just plain cool factor of being able to communicate in more than one language, being multilingual offers tremendous benefits to the brain.
Speech and Language Pathologist Robert Kurtz lists the following seven cognitive advantages of bilingualism:
1. better metalinguistic awareness (ability to identify and describe characteristics and features of language);
2. better classification skills;
3. better concept formation;
4. better analogical reasoning;
5. better visual-spatial skills;
6. better storytelling skills;
7. better semantic development.
In a well-cited article for the ERIC Review , Kathleen M. Marcos discusses research suggesting that students who receive second language instruction are more creative and better at solving complex problems than those who do not (Bamford and Mizokawa, 1991). And in an era in which Americans have been shown to be declining in creativity, developing this type of intelligence is essential.
Other studies suggest that persons with full proficiency in more than one language (bilinguals) outperform similar monolingual persons on both verbal and nonverbal (math, critical thinking) tests of intelligence. In another study, multilingual children of average intelligence learned to read in their native language earlier than their monolingual peers.
It has long been observed that individuals proficient in a second language generally have an easier time learning subsequent languages. While such individuals are often regarded as having a talent for languages (which, to some extent, may be the case), the truth is that learning more than one language establishes the brain circuitry for language acquisition, making it easier to learn third fourth and fifth languages as well.
The advantages can play out later in life, too. For instance, multilingual stroke victims rarely lose ability in all of their languages because these languages are stored in different parts of the brain. if a stroke hits the language center of a monolingual person, her entire ability to communicate is affected, whereas multilinguals may have damage to an area in which one of their languages is stored but not in another. And as if that weren’t enough, studies on multilingual Alzheimer’s patients indicate that multilingualism can delay the onset of symptoms by as much as five years!
Yet, despite all these benefits, as well as improved performance on standardized tests (even in non-verbal subject areas) and all the obvious advantages, language instruction continuously lands on the chopping block when school districts face tight budget decisions. Perhaps if more decision makers had become multilingual at an early age, enhanced brain function would enable them to recognize that such sacrifices are foolish at best.
“Do you speak Chinese?”
“How do you help him with his homework?”
“Do you plan to learn Chinese?”
“Are you worried about him learning the other subjects?”
“Were you nervous about sending him to kindergarten?”
These are the questions I get most often since we got word, a little over two years ago, that our son would be enrolled in a Mandarin immersion program. I was pleased to get the letter, but also a little nervous—as all parents are when contemplating sending their children to kindergarten—about all of these things.
The hardest one for me to answer is “Really?” especially when it is spoken with an air of judgment about it as if the questioner thinks I might be making a mistake. My inclination is to reply with “Of course, who wouldn’t want this opportunity for their kid?” But the truth is that all those other questions often bog parents down when they are considering immersion for their children, and the lack of answers leads many to stick with the comfortable option of putting their child in an English-only classroom.
Even before I had children I knew I wanted them to be multilingual, so when it came time to shop for kindergartens (the public schools where we live are selected by parents in a complicated lottery system), I toured immersion schools almost exclusively. I had thought I would go for a language that was more approachable considering my own background (I studied French, Spanish, and Italian in college), so I took a look at every Spanish immersion school in our district, and checked out the Chinese immersion programs mainly for comparison. On one of these tours, I fell in love with my sons’ school and thus embarked on the process of talking myself and their father into going for Mandarin, a language neither of us could speak, read, write, nor understand.
Not one word.
I explained to my son that when he went to kindergarten his teacher would speak Chinese and he wouldn’t understand her at first but would learn to after a while. He mulled it over for a few weeks then told me he thought he’d rather go to kindergarten in English.
“But you already know English,” I responded. “Won’t it be great to learn a whole new language, too?”
This prospect did excite him, and, to his credit, he was (and is) a very good sport. His brother, who will enter kindergarten next month, is thrilled that the day is finally coming where he will learn more than how to count to ten and say hello in Mandarin. I wouldn’t be surprised to find them chattering with each other by winter break while their helpless parents look on.
I also learned from parents who had gone before that it is important to let children know that though their teacher will never speak English to them, she or he can understand it. “She will answer in Chinese, but she’ll make sure you get what you need, especially if you’re hurt or sick or have an emergency.” Knowing that they understand this definitely eases all our minds.
Two years later, I know more Chinese than I did, and am far less intimidated by it. With two live-in tutors I may just learn some useful Mandarin after all. Most of their Chinese homework (so far) consists of writing characters, which is mercifully straightforward. The math curriculum is written in English, even though it is taught in Chinese at school. When students need help that parents can’t provide, they call on each other. Like the students in Speaking in Tongues, the majority of my older son’s classmates are reading in English and doing grade-level math just like their peers in English-only classrooms. They just happen to be learning a new language and sharing new cultural experiences at the same time.
Hello, Ni Hao, Hola, Bonjour, and greetings to all in whatever language(s) you speak or are learning. Welcome to the Speaking In Tongues blog! I am the mother of two kids learning Mandarin at a San Francisco public school. My older son—who already holds his own in casual conversation and gets compliments on his accent every time he speaks Mandarin—is about to start second grade, and his little brother will begin kindergarten in August. Being their mother has, of course, brought me amazing experiences every day since they were born, but the budding bilingualism is making things more interesting all the time. Their father and I speak no Chinese beyond what our older son has taught us (and he doesn’t hesitate to criticize our attempts at pronunciation), and since he learned to spell, our only recourse to private conversation in front of our children has been pig Latin.
The tables are about to turn!
When we decided to enroll our kids in a language immersion program, we just thought we were taking advantage of a wonderful opportunity. We didn’t realize until watching the premiere of Speaking in Tongues at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2009 that we were trailblazers on a controversial path.
I have always felt extremely fortunate to live in a city that has not only the political support to provide immersion options in public education but also the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity to support language acquisition outside the classroom. Parents in other parts of the country who want this opportunity for their children have a much harder road to travel. Still, more schools, both public and private, are taking advantage of parent interest in immersion and the brain’s remarkable ability to learn languages at an early age. Programs in languages as diverse as Navajo, Russian, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Arabic, Korean, and more are increasing in areas from New York City to the Navajo Nation.
As the popularity of early second-language instruction increases, anti-immigrant sentiment, the English-only movement, and measures such as the controversial Arizona law SB 1070 are also making regular headlines. It is unclear how immersion programs will ultimately be affected by the No Child Left Behind mandate and Race to the Top incentive program, and many parents, though excited about their children learning a second language, are understandably concerned that their learning and literacy in English and other core subjects may suffer as a result of the immersion environment.
In this blog we hope to explore the excitement and the controversy of immersion education and second language acquisition in children. We will write about research and politics, trends and tendencies. With guest bloggers and voices of experience throughout the language education community, we hope to stimulate conversation about this very important topic and to provide a forum for parents, teachers, students, administrators, politicians, psychologists and other experts in the field of early language acquisition to share their perspectives. We hope you will come here often to explore the world that is opening up as an unprecedented number of US schoolchildren are opening to the world by learning to communicate in a language other than English.