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Is Language Immersion Right for My Child?

Education Week

By Heather Singmaster - March 28, 2016

My son is in kindergarten and spends half of his day learning in English and half in Chinese at one of the oldest Chinese immersion programs in the country. I didn't think twice about entering the lottery for admission—in fact, it's a large part of the reason I left New York City and moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, where 10 percent of public school students are enrolled in immersion programs.

Parents regularly ask me if immersion is right for their child. I almost unequivocally say yes—years of research show that immersion language programs give children a leg up academically—this applies regardless of the socio-economic or ethnic background of a child. Students at "below average"  levels of academic ability" have been shown to succeed in immersion programs and will learn the second language better. Not to mention that speaking a second language is a distinct advantage when seeking a job and can result in higher pay. Of course, every child is different and there are circumstances where immersion may not the best option.


Here are some of the common questions parents have about immersion and the answers I give:

Is it true that language immersion is better for their brains?
This is always the first question I get and the answer is 'yes.' There are years of research showing that the brains of bilingual people have better executive function, which is what allows you to focus on problem solving, moving between tasks, and recalling words and information. All are keys to being successful in life. 

Even though there is some recent disagreement about this benefit to brain development (it is a difficult subject to research and the trials and results are not always consistent), there are plenty of other advantages to learning a second language.

Will my child be confused?
Until relatively recently, especially among immigrants to the United States who speak a language other than English at home, there was a strong belief that learning two languages was dangerous and would lead to confusion in children. Numerous studies, however, have proven that this is not true. For instance, Jaren Diamond, who has worked extensively in Papua New Guinea, shows that children there begin learning at least two languages from birth. Most people he knows there speak more than five languages—and don't confuse them.

However, as children are learning, and even if they study the same language for 12 years or more, they will mix up words. A word meant to come out in English will come out in the second language, and vice versa. But a new study by Judith F. Kroll, a Pennsylvania State Distinguished Professor in psychology, linguistics, and women's studies, posits that this mental struggle is good for the brain—this daily exercise of choosing between two languages actually makes the brain stronger and improves the executive function. Jaren Diamond hypothesizes that the daily skill these bilinguals are practicing is the solving of problems—specifically problems with rules that are confusing or constantly changing, or where misleading information is involved.

Do children really learn better in elementary school? Can't they just wait until high school?
I do not want to discourage language learning at any age and depending on where you live, high school may be the only option to learn a second language. However, if given the opportunity, start your child young. While the concept of the "brain soaking up language the younger you are" is a very difficult one to research, an innovative new study shows that indeed, the younger children are, the better at learning a second language. It shows that there may be a time period where the brain is more sensitive to learning grammar and therefore, younger learners will master grammar rules that older learners will always struggle with. Additionally, as the study points out for younger learners, "the habits of pronunciation and grammar of their first language are less deeply ingrained and thus easier to overcome."

There are other reasons as well. Think back to your high school years and what your priorities were—was learning a second language one of them? Especially when you may have only studied it a couple of times a week for an hour at a time? I bet not. Meanwhile, my son, who began immersion at the age of two and a half, will tell you that he is Chinese because he speaks the language and will one day travel to China—he is fully invested! He also has the luxury of time that most high school students and adults don't have—it's a focus of half his day. And he isn't afraid to speak Chinese and make mistakes, a carefree attitude that older learners don't usually have.

There is also the fact that the more hours you spend learning a language, the higher your fluency will be. You can't make up for hours lost in your youth, but you can give those hours to your child through immersion.

Will they learn English as well as their peers who are not in immersion?
Yes! This is one of the most studied topics in immersion language learning. What the research consistently reveals is that students show a temporary lag in specific English skills, such as capitalization, punctuation, spelling, word knowledge, and word discrimination on standardized tests. But after approximately the fourth grade, they perform better than their monolingual peers on tests in English. There are no long-term consequences to their ability to speak or read English or to their literacy development. And for parents worried about the vocabulary of their bilingual learner, consider this: their overall vocabulary is actually double that of a monolingual—they know the same word in English and their second language.

If you need further proof, new research from RAND compared 27,000 students over ten years here in Portland. The headline of the study is that immersion students outperformed their non-immersion peers in English reading by seven months in fifth grade and nine months in eighth grade. That is basically a full school year ahead.

This study was particularly groundbreaking because the students here are assigned to the programs by lottery, meaning that this was one of the first randomized trials representing students from all different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. It also showed that English Language Learner (ELL) students enrolled in these immersion programs were less likely to be an ELL by the sixth grade.

Will they also do better in math and science?
The RAND study did not show benefits for math and science, but also showed no detriment. In fact, for the Japanese, Russian, and Chinese programs, there may be "modest benefits." Other studies of students in French immersion programs in Canada have shown some superior levels of achievement in these subject areas on standardized tests. So we can't say yes, but we can't say no, either.

I won't be able to help them with their homework!
This is a very practical concern of parents and one that comes up repeatedly. Teachers are aware that parents are not able to provide the assistance at home that they would if their child were learning in the home language. Therefore, many immersion schools offer afterschool homework help. Local afterschool programs may also offer this kind of assistance. My son's school set up a closed Facebook group for the parents in our class. There are often homework questions posed and answered there. Students can also find a peer to be their homework buddy.

Granite School District (located in Utah, where there are more immersion students than any other state in the country), has this helpful guide for parents of immersion students.

I'm convinced—but there is no immersion program in my school district.

Start Your Own
If you are motivated and energetic, you can work with your school board and school to start an immersion program. Asia society offers free handbooks to help you—they are targeted for starting a Chinese immersion program, but the information can just as easily apply to other languages. 

Look for Heritage Programs
If starting your own program is too daunting a task (I don't blame you!) or not possible given budgetary or political constraints, look for classes offered by local heritage groups. They often provide language classes in the evenings or on the weekends. Start by searching the Heritage Program directory. This listing may not be complete given the constant change in offerings—so don't despair if this doesn't yield results, do another, broader online search for your community. Local universities or community colleges may also have some offerings for students. For instance Confucious institutes around the country offer Chinese classes. 

And don't forget about language camps in the summer. Searching the Startalk site—a federally funded program with offerings across the country in multiple languages—is a good starting place.

Private Companies and Schools
Private companies/tutors like Language Stars in the DC and Chicago area offer weekday classes for young children and weekend classes for school-age children. Companies like Berlitz have multiple locations and private tutors are also available in most areas. There may also be a private school near you that offers immersion. 

Online Learning
If all else fails, turn to technology! There are online classes (again, for Chinese, Confucius Institutes offer online courses). Search Coursera or university websites—for instance a quick search brought up a free online French course from Carnegie Mellon. Try to find one that offers the ability to speak directly with a native speaker to ensure proper pronunciation. Or combine online courses with a weekly session on a site like WeSpeke that matches language learners around the world together for free. Check your local library, many offer free access to language learning software. For parents who want to explore a language alongside their children, try Duolingo (I use it to brush up on my Spanish).

Immersion: the benefits are many, the arguments against it are few. It strengthens the brain, improves understanding of native language, and gives students an advantage later in life when looking for a job.


5 Reasons Why Your Child Should Attend a Language Immersion Preschool

From CARELULU.COM - April 20, 2015

So, you have decided to give your child the gift of languages. Congratulations, your child will thank you for it! As promised in our previous post about raising multilingual children, in this article we are going to dive deeper into language immersion preschool programs and the reasons why they are a great idea!

Let’s start with a quick rundown on what language immersion preschool programs are, exactly, and how they differ from traditional language classes. A traditional class means that one class (the language itself, e.g. Spanish) is taught in the foreign language. The other classes in the child care or preschool program are taught in English. The result is that a relatively small percentage of the child’s day is spent speaking Spanish.
In a language immersion daycare or preschool, most (or all) classes are taught in the foreign language, resulting in a higher percentage of the day spent speaking it. There are different types of immersion programs, depending your goals as parents. All programs assume that one language (let’s say English) is being spoken at home and you, parents, would like another language (let’s say Spanish) to be learned at preschool. Maybe even a third language (let’s say Mandarin).

Complete immersion
 is probably the most popular choice and means that 100% of the classes are taught in Spanish. This type of program is one-way, i.e., the program is designed to bring about fluency in Spanish. It is assumed that your children will become fluent in English because it is spoken at home.

Partial immersion
 means that 50% of the classes are taught in Spanish. The program is therefore two-way and brings about fluency in both Spanish and English. “Triple play” programs are for the truly ambitious and are variations that involve a two-way complete immersion with Spanish and Mandarin at school and (supposedly) English at home. These types of programs are rare.
Now that we’ve covered the types of language immersion preschool programs, let’s cover five reasons why they are a good idea. You can probably put a price tag on the first one, but probably not on the last one!

1. Bang for your buck.
 Children have a window of a few years during which it is easy for them to learn languages. Extraordinarily easy in fact. The “cutoff” age is estimated to be about 10 years. An immersion daycare or preschool may be a little more expensive than an “English only” one, but the return on investment in their language education when they are less than 5 years old is hundreds of times higher than when they are 15, and probably thousands of times higher than when they are 20, especially if you consider the cost of college these days!

2. Language absorption.
 Children are little language sponges from about the age of 6 months until about the age of 10. The more you send their way, the more they absorb. If you want them to absorb more, it makes sense to send as much their way as soon as possible. The sheer volume of the foreign language being used in immersion programs is much higher than in a traditional language class, of course.

3. Methodology.
 In a language immersion daycare, teachers have more time and flexibility to approach teaching from a wider variety of angles. This style is a good fit for younger learners who are naturally inquisitive and are actually able to absorb the language from all angles.

4. Involvement.
 At the organizational level, language immersion preschools tend to act as a magnet for achievement-oriented parents who like to stay involved so you can meet others who share your educational values. On the personal level, especially for full immersion preschools, parents usually feel responsible for making sure their child knows how to communicate everything in English as well, e.g. “You know circulo means circle, right?!”

5. Compassion and culture.
 Placing your children in an environment where they need to try harder to understand and be understood is a very efficient way to teach compassion. It is also impossible to learn a foreign language without learning a lot about the foreign culture that goes along with it. Cultural awareness and compassion for others with different backgrounds have always been assets but arguably never more so than in the interconnected world of today. Priceless!

Bilingual Education Can Start Preschoolers on Path to Success

More parents turning to language immersion programs to provide toddlers with academic head-start or preserve native tongue

By Lisa Intrabartola - January 17, 2012

“Hola! Como esta?” shouts 4-year-old Jackson Morton as he bounds through the front door of Yellow Brick Road preschool in Highland Park on a recent Saturday morning.
It’s graduation day for Morton and his seven classmates.   

Six weeks ago few of them could speak or understand Spanish. Today, the preschoolers – ages 1 to 5 – can follow and participate in a lesson featuring a puppet show version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears performed entirely in Spanish. They also know their numbers, colors, fruits and vegetables and how to follow basic classroom directions – after only six hours of instruction.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, more and more parents are turning to language immersion programs for their toddlers and preschoolers. Some are motivated by the desire to preserve family heritage and culture. Others see early language instruction as a way to provide their children with academic and cognitive advantages.

“For me, it’s partly trying to impart my culture,” said Alexandra Figueras-Daniel, a mother of two who is of Cuban-American descent. “There are some studies that show that [bilingual children] fair better economically because they are a little bit more marketable, so there’s definitely that side of it as well.”
Figueras-Daniel – a research project coordinator for the National Institute for Early Education Research at the Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education who is working on a doctorate in education policy – has seen firsthand the positive impact dual-language immersion programs have on preschoolers.  Early exposure to a second language enhances cognitive abilities, such as self-regulation skills. 

A growing number of parents are turning to language immersion programs for their toddlers and preschoolers. Some are looking to preserve family heritage; others for academic advantage.
“When you are speaking in English, the dial is set to English, but that doesn’t mean a Spanish station isn’t running also,” she said. “You’re making a conscious effort to block one language to communicate in the other. "

Language learning can begin as early as infancy and even in utero, as babies develop an interest in and affinity for the phonetic sounds and rhythms of the language or languages they are exposed to, studies show.  

“That period is considered the critical period where the ear is  more in tune to certain sounds. That allows them to learn language as quickly as they do,” Figueras-Daniel said. “It makes sense in pre-school is because 3- and 4-year-olds have not mastered English. They are still experimenting with grammar and the structure of language and are learning new vocabulary every day.”

A new infant-through-preschool center on Rutgers' Camden Campus offers dual and bilingual education to students soon after birth. Classes at the John S. and James L. Knight Early Learning Research Academy are taught three days a week in Spanish and two days a week in English.

Almost everything in the school is labeled in both languages. On days when Spanish is taught, everyone in the building speaks the language right down to the janitors, said Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor who developed the program.

“We have a country made of up immigrants and learning a second language is good for the global economy,’’ Bonilla- Santiago said. For children, learning two languages “is critically important for their own professional development and careers.’’

The Early Learning Research Academy was developed to prepare students before they enter kindergarten at the Leap Academy University Charter School, which seeks to break the cycle of poverty by preparing low-income minority students to attend college. It will also serve as a lab for faculty to research how quickly infants pick up language skills, Bonilla- Santiago said.

Marcela Caro wanted her sons – Kyle, 4, and 16-month-old twins Connor and Dylan – to have the early second language education her father shared with her as a preschooler in Chile.

Learning English as a young child helped broad her world. “It opened doors for me,” said Caro, who served as program coordinator for Rutgers’ Study Abroad office until January 2011. “I’m very grateful to have been exposed to another language at such an early age.”

After leaving Rutgers to become a full-time mom, Caro searched for a bilingual moms group on When she couldn’t find one, she started her own.

“My son [Kyle] was my inspiration for my whole program,” Caro said of the Somerset Spanish for Children Play and Learn Group, which she founded in March 2011. “I realized he needed to meet more children that were bilingual. Me being at home teaching him wasn’t going enough.”
After her first informal series, preschools began contacting Caro. Now she teaches Spanish at local early childhood centers including the Yellow Brick Road Preschool in Highland Park.
Caro’s class has attracted numerous Spanish-speaking moms who are married to English-speaking spouses, including Highland Park’s Carmen Herzog, who said she wants to share her native tongue with daughter Zoe, who just turned 4.

While Zoe understands Spanish, Herzog said she was reluctant to speak it until she attended Caro’s class.  “Being with other kids speaking Spanish is big motivator,” she said. “It’s more of a chore when it’s just with your mom.”

The program also appeals to non-bilingual parents, including Joan McCormick, wife of Rutgers President Richard McCormick. Their daughter Katie – who turns 2 in January – started Caro’s classes at 16 months. Now, when Caro speaks to Katie, she replies in English, demonstrating she understands what Caro is saying.

“I personally believe it’s important to know another language. I think it helps you in every aspect of your life,” said Joan McCormick, who took five years of Spanish in high school and college. “I never used it and can’t speak the language. I wish I were immersed in it much younger and that it became a way of life.”

US has more Spanish speakers than Spain

By Chris Perez - June 29, 2015

The United States now has more Spanish speakers than Spain — and the second most in the world, according to a new study.
A report published by the renowned Instituto Cervantes research center says there are now an estimated 52.6 million people in the US who can speak the worldwide romance language, which is second only to Mexico’s 121 million.
In comparison, Colombia is made up of 48 million Spanish speakers and Spain only has 46 million.
The report also found that there are now around 559 million Spanish speakers worldwide. About 470 million of those people are native speakers.
Data obtained from the US Census Office suggests that the US will have an estimated 138 million Spanish speakers by 2050 — which would make it the biggest Spanish-speaking nation on Earth.
There are currently 41 million native Spanish speakers living in the US today — and another 11.6 million people who are bilingual, many of whom are the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants, the report says.
An estimated 18.2 percent of New Yorkers can speak Spanish, according to the US Hispanic Data Gallery.
New Mexico is home to the highest population of Spanish-speakers in the country, with 47 percent. California and Texas are next in line with 38 percent, followed by Arizona (30 percent), Nevada (27.3 percent) and Florida (23.2 percent).
The lowest concentrations of Spanish-speaking Americans are located in West Virginia (1.3 percent), Maine (1.4 percent) and Vermont (1.6 percent).
The Instituto Cervantes is a worldwide organization that is devoted to the study and teaching of Spanish language and culture.


Why Immersion May Be the Key to Foreign Language Learning

9 Ways to Bring Immersion Learning to Your School

By Samantha Cleaver - December 19, 2013

The research is clear: Immersion programs, in which students spend at least 50 percent of their time learning in a second language, work amazingly well in developing students’ fluency and skills. And even if your school does not have a full immersion program, you can make a difference for your students by doing some immersion work in your class.
For example, when students come to the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academies—held at sites across the United States and the world—many are barely able to introduce themselves in French, Spanish, or Chinese—much like any student new to a foreign language.
By the end of four short weeks, however, these middle and high school students have often made more progress than those in a traditional classroom year. They’re able to converse, watch television shows and read books in the new language, and are on their way to becoming proficient in a second language.
The key to the students’ success is the full immersion approach to language learning. Middlebury Language Academy instructors operate with the understanding that, in order to learn a language, students have to use it in a meaningful, real-world way. That means learning the language through culture, art and music with less emphasis on more common teaching methods like rote vocabulary memorization.
More and more schools are considering immersion as a way to develop students’ second language skills. Some K-12 programs are using their own curriculum, while others are implementing online and blended learning solutions such as those offered by Middlebury Interactive Languages, the world language education-technology company that hosts the Language Academy every summer.
Martha Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), sees a growth trend in language immersion programs. Currently, Delaware and Utah are leading the way with state-wide initiatives. The idea, says Tara Fortune, Ph.D., Immersion Project Coordinator at the University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, is that bilingual students will be better able to compete in the global marketplace.
What Is Immersion Language Learning?
Immersion programs, which include developmental bilingual and other dual language programs, are characterized by an instructional day that includes at least 50 percent spent in the non-English language. “We have been most successful in developing academic language and literacy in English and non-English when we provide a minimum of 50 percent support over a longer period of time,” says Fortune. Younger students spend the majority (80-90 percent) of their time in the non-English language, while older students may spend more time working in English.
Teachers use modeling, manipulatives, and explanations to teach students academic content in the target language. As students learn content, they also receive instruction on how to use the language in each subject. The ultimate goal is biliteracy: the idea that students can completely understand, speak, read, and write in both languages.
The Benefits of Immersion
In addition to the benefit of bilingualism, learning a second language activates different parts of the brain, says Abbott, and students who participate in language immersion programs get a cognitive boost. The advantages to providing kids with quality language immersion programs are labor intensive, says Fortune, but they also produce results. As students learn two languages, they develop advantages in their ability to break apart words, identify sounds, and listen. Bilinguals, says Fortune, also outperform monolinguals on tasks that require them to pause and make a decision between two options.
While there is a lag in initial student proficiency in school-based language programs, students do catch up. “The longer you have the immersion in the classroom,” says Abbott, “the greater the yield in proficiency should be in the performance of the kids.” Students generally meet academic targets by 3rd or 5th grades and many ultimately surpass the achievement of their peers.

Getting Started: 9 Tricks From the Immersion Classroom
Even if your school has not fully committed to an immersion approach, say experts, there are techniques you can borrow to make your foreign language instruction more effective:
  1. Start with Stories 
    Teachers at Weybridge Elementary in Middlebury, Vt., blend Middlebury Interactive Language’s online Spanish courses with direct instruction from a trained Spanish teacher. The curriculum incorporates fairy tales and culturally relevant stories that help kids connect with the language. All the activities are developed around one story, says Aline Germain-Rutherford, Ph.D., Chief Learning Officer for Middlebury Interactive Languages and Language Professor at Middlebury College, “so the student is exposed to the authenticity and vocabulary and patterns of language.” Culturally relevant myths, legends, and fables add richness and authenticity to instruction, and help kids create context for language. 
  2. Keep it Task-Oriented 
    Rather than having students work out of a text book, create and assign them tasks that will require them to figure out how to conjugate verbs, make singular nouns plural, and find the right vocabulary. When students are able to associate the meaning of words with context, says Germain-Rutherford, they’re able to retain those words faster. That’s why the focus on working with language in context, such as solving a problem or staging a presentation, is so important.
  3. Incorporate the Core 
    The Common Core has a focus on cultural awareness and students’ ability to understand different perspectives. That’s where the cultural aspect of language comes into play. “There are aspects of language instruction that have to do with introducing students to other cultures and other ways of thinking,” says Christina Johnston, principal at Weybridge Elementary. The result of this aspect of the Middlebury Interactive’s program, for Weybridge students, is that they build an understanding that communication involves give-and-take. This reciprocity carries over into listening during class and playground disputes.
  4. Use the Language Standards 
    In addition to academic standards, language standards (such as the WIDA or ACTFL standards) should be woven into language programs. Drawing from a variety of standards will help your program address all aspects of language use.
  5. Use Authentic Assessment
    With a language immersion program, you may not see immediate gains in test scores, so it’s important to provide an authentic assessment of students’ skills. In elementary school in particular, use a combination of tests and classwork to provide students and parents with an idea of what they know and are able to do.
  6. Allow Students to Grapple
    When students start learning their language, says Germain-Rutherford, there is an “aha!” moment when they realize that they can understand by using context, gestures, visual cues, and their own background knowledge to make meaning. That “aha!” moment doesn’t come without lots of struggle, however, so give your students time to slow down, grapple, and figure out how to use the language on their own.
  7. Incorporate Online Resources 
    Online programs can help expand existing language programs through the incorporation of more immersive, authentic materials. Teachers in the South Burlington School District in Vermont use Middlebury Interactive’s digital language curriculum to supplement its high school language curriculum. Students strengthen listening and speaking abilities by participating in activities from pronouncing vocabulary to creating or rearranging sentences. “The content is excellent,” says Theresa Mazza-Anthony, curriculum area supervisor, “it’s timely and they have a lot of authentic material.” The benefit of online learning for students ranges from their working at their own pace to feeling comfortable taking risks when talking to the computer.
  8. Connect with Culture 
    Through online videos and scenarios, Middlebury Interactive students “realize very quickly that language and culture go hand-in-hand,” says Germain-Rutherford. “This is very motivating for students.” For Weybridge students, who live in a community that does not have a large population of Spanish speakers, being able to learn Spanish in the cultural context provides them with an understanding they wouldn’t get anywhere else.
  9. Build Both Languages
    At Weybridge, content teachers work with the Spanish teacher to reinforce vocabulary across subjects. In Kindergarten, for example, students may practice counting in Spanish and English. The immediate goal is to have students build vocabulary and context in both languages; in the long term, the goal is for students to use their vocabulary to develop higher order thinking in Spanish. “We’re putting the building blocks in,” says Johnston, so that “students aren’t just naming things, but they can think through and converse in more complex ways.”