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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.”

Immersion in a foreign language rewires your brain - especially when you take time off

Via Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, PLoS ONE

By Sophie Bushwick - March 31, 2012

By the time you reach adulthood, learning a foreign language is a struggle – even after you memorize grammar and vocabulary, there's no guarantee that you'll understand a fast-talking native speaker, and when you stop studying for even a month, you seem to forget everything you'd learned.
Children's brains, on the other hand, are hard-wired to let them pick up languages with ease. Plus, a new study finds that even adult brains can re-wire themselves to mimic the brain patterns of native speakers – and this effect is amplified if they study by immersing themselves in a foreign language, rather than sitting in a classroom. And when they were not exposed to the new language for five months, their native-speaker brain patterns actually got stronger. 
The new finding contrasts with previous studies, which indicated that similar levels of language learning could be achieved by both studying grammar rules in a classroom setting, or "explicit training," and immersion in the language, or "implicit training," defined as "training that engages…learners with the target language but does not provide any explicit information or direction to search for rules." But these studies failed to examine students' brains.
Researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center and the University of Illinois – Chicago used an artificial 13-word language, Brocanto2, to describe a computer game. While the artificial language's small vocabulary allowed subjects to learn it fairly quickly, its grammar was relatively sophisticated, mimicking the rules of Romance languages while diverging from the participants' native English grammar.
Next, the researchers separated 41 adults, who spoke only English, into two groups at random. One would study Brocanto2 through explicit, and the other through implicit, training. To standardize the brain scans, the participants all had to be right handed.
After studying and practicing the artificial language, the subjects listened to Brocanto2 sentences that were either correct or contained grammatical errors, and they had to press buttons to indicate whether the sentences were "good" or "bad." While participants underwent testing, EEG electrodes monitored the electrical activity on their scalps, which allowed the researchers to build a picture of their brain activity.
While both groups achieved similar proficiency in the artificial language, their brains weren't as evenly matched. Only the brains in the immersion training group processed language like native speakers' brains would. And even after five months of zero exposure to Brocanto2, the brain patterns in both groups only became more similar to those of native speakers.
"The results demonstrate that substantial periods with no [language] exposure are not necessarily detrimental. Rather, benefits may ensue from such periods of time even when there is no [language] exposure. Interestingly, both before and after the delay the implicitly trained group showed more native-like processing than the explicitly trained group, indicating that type of training also affects the attainment of nativelike processing in the brain."

Learning a language makes you more tolerant, so why aren't more universities encouraging it?

This article is published in collaboration with The Conversation

Written by Amy Thompson, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of South Florida

There are many benefits to knowing more than one language. For example, it has been shown that aging adults who speak more than one language have less likelihood of developing dementia.

Additionally, the bilingual brain becomes better at filtering out distractions, and learning multiple languages improves creativity. Evidence also shows that learning subsequent languages is easier than learning the first foreign language.

Unfortunately, not all American universities consider learning foreign languages a worthwhile investment.

Why is foreign language study important at the university level?

As an applied linguist, I study how learning multiple languages can have cognitive and emotional benefits. One of these benefits that’s not obvious is that language learning improves tolerance.

This happens in two important ways.

The first is that it opens people’s eyes to a way of doing things in a way that’s different from their own, which is called “cultural competence.”

The second is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with unfamiliar situations, or “tolerance of ambiguity.”

Gaining cross-cultural understanding
Cultural competence is key to thriving in our increasingly globalized world. How specifically does language learning improve cultural competence? The answer can be illuminated by examining different types of intelligence.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg’s research on intelligence describes different types of intelligence and how they are related to adult language learning. What he refers to as “practical intelligence” is similar to social intelligence in that it helps individuals learn nonexplicit information from their environments, including meaningful gestures or other social cues.

Language learning inevitably involves learning about different cultures. Students pick up clues about the culture both in language classes and through meaningful immersion experiences.

Researchers Hanh Thi Nguyen and Guy Kellogg have shown that when students learn another language, they develop new ways of understanding culture through analyzing cultural stereotypes. They explain that “learning a second language involves the acquisition not only of linguistic forms but also ways of thinking and behaving.”

With the help of an instructor, students can critically think about stereotypes of different cultures related to food, appearance and conversation styles.

Dealing with the unknown
The second way that adult language learning increases tolerance is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with “tolerance of ambiguity.”

Someone with a high tolerance of ambiguity finds unfamiliar situations exciting, rather than frightening. My research on motivationanxiety and beliefs indicates that language learning improves people’s tolerance of ambiguity, especially when more than one foreign language is involved.

It’s not difficult to see why this may be so. Conversations in a foreign language will inevitably involve unknown words. It wouldn’t be a successful conversation if one of the speakers constantly stopped to say, “Hang on – I don’t know that word. Let me look it up in the dictionary.” Those with a high tolerance of ambiguity would feel comfortable maintaining the conversation despite the unfamiliar words involved.

Applied linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Li Wei also study tolerance of ambiguity and have indicated that those with experience learning more than one foreign language in an instructed setting have more tolerance of ambiguity.

What changes with this understanding
A high tolerance of ambiguity brings many advantages. It helps students become less anxious in social interactions and in subsequent language learningexperiences. Not surprisingly, the more experience a person has with language learning, the more comfortable the person gets with this ambiguity.

And that’s not all.

Individuals with higher levels of tolerance of ambiguity have also been found to be more entrepreneurial (i.e., are more optimistic, innovative and don’t mind taking risks).

In the current climate, universities are frequently being judged by the salaries of their graduates. Taking it one step further, based on the relationship of tolerance of ambiguity and entrepreneurial intention, increased tolerance of ambiguity could lead to higher salaries for graduates, which in turn, I believe, could help increase funding for those universities that require foreign language study.

Those who have devoted their lives to theorizing about and the teaching of languages would say, “It’s not about the money.” But perhaps it is.

Language learning in higher ed
Most American universities have a minimal language requirement that often varies depending on the student’s major. However, students can typically opt out of the requirement by taking a placement test or providing some other proof of competency.

In contrast to this trend, Princeton recently announced that all students, regardless of their competency when entering the university, would be required to study an additional language.

I’d argue that more universities should follow Princeton’s lead, as language study at the university level could lead to an increased tolerance of the different cultural norms represented in American society, which is desperately needed in the current political climate with the wave of hate crimes sweeping university campuses nationwide.

Knowledge of different languages is crucial to becoming global citizens. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted,

“Our country needs to create a future in which all Americans understand that by speaking more than one language, they are enabling our country to compete successfully and work collaboratively with partners across the globe.”

Considering the evidence that studying languages as adults increases tolerance in two important ways, the question shouldn’t be “Why should universities require foreign language study?” but rather “Why in the world wouldn’t they?”