Getting ahead globally: Immersion schools put students on the bilingual fast track
By Thomas Wrede, University of St. Thomas
A mild Mediterranean breeze ruffles the tablecloth at a coastal restaurant in Barcelona. It’s past 9 p.m. and your stomach is grumbling on the first night of vacation.
You’re lost while scanning the menu. After all, everyone in your family was born in the United States and speaks English. Yet your 12-year-old sister, who is almost fluent in Spanish, calmly addresses the waiter and orders steaming Paella for all.
Gone are the days when she would babble a few words in Spanish as a kindergartener. Her growing confidence with bilingualism is the byproduct of a growing trend — language immersion for students at an early age.
Language immersion programs use a language other than English to teach subjects like science, language arts and humanities. Instruction of the immersion language usually lasts between 50 to 100 percent of the school day during preschool and elementary years. This varies as students move onto middle and high school.
Immersion students have the benefit of learning a language over a long period of time while getting a chance to study a variety of subjects, said Kim Miller, webmaster and past senior chair at Minnesota Advocates for Immersion Network (MAIN), a nonprofit membership organization of Minnesota immersion educators and programs.
They become more fluent over time as opposed to learning basic material in a traditional classroom for a just half-hour to an hour each day.
“Kids must converse in different parts of the curriculum to be considered bilingual,” Miller said.
THE IMMERSIVE STYLE
MAIN is a statewide organization that offers support to immersion programs, promotes public awareness and helps with the professional development of teachers. A goal for immersion students is to gain a better understanding of other cultures and become academically successful in subject areas outside of language learning, Miller said.
The immersive style of language teaching goes back more than 30 years in the Twin Cities, It has grown immensely, Miller said.
According to MAIN, at last count, there were 67 programs at the preschool, elementary and secondary levels educating an estimated 13,000 students and employing more than 600 teachers statewide. The two most prominent immersion languages in Minnesota are Spanish and French, although Mandarin, Hmong, Dakota/Ojibwe and German have institutions.
“The idea of an immersion education is that you become proficient in a second language and also in your own language. The emphasis is to become both bilingual and biliterate,” Miller said. “Research shows learning a second language produces academically successful students in subject areas that don’t involve language learning.”
But it isn’t a one-size-fits-all program. Language immersion may not be for everyone, and there are occasions where a family may opt out of an immersion program due to their child’s learning needs.
“A family with a child who has experienced trauma, or who may simply have language processing challenges may find a monolingual classroom less stressful for the learner,” said Christine Osorio, chief academic officer at St. Paul Public Schools.
Another option in Minnesota is the two-way language immersion program. In this version, the goal is to have 50 percent native English speakers and 50 percent native speakers of a minority language in the same classroom. Speakers of one language help the other student group learn the new language — an opportunity for both sets of students to have models that are their own age.
Jackeline Cruz, a recent graduate of Anwatin Middle School in Minneapolis, has been exposed to the two-way immersion model for nine years.
“I got to engage with both groups. If I only spoke Spanish, I wouldn’t be so open with others, and since I have an opportunity to speak both languages I can be more open with everybody,” she said.
Cruz’s classes helped her catch up on English. Spanish classes allowed her to interact more at home.
“Home is the only place I can actually speak Spanish. Spanish speaking classes at school helped me engage in my culture,” she said.
“If I didn’t attend an immersion school, I would probably lose all of my Spanish because it has happened to one of my cousins. They learn everything in English and they lose their language. If you lose language, you lose your heritage.”
Cruz is the trendsetter for her family, which hails from Mexico. Essentially, she is practicing both Spanish and English outside of school as a translator.
“Since I’m the oldest child, I’m more out there to help my family if they don’t understand something in English,” she said.
LIVING IN A GLOBAL SOCIETY
Beyond cultural awareness, proponents of immersion learning also tout the technical brain benefits from learning another language so young,
Colleen Simmons, chair of MAIN Parents and mother of triplets — Sienna, Paige and Camryn, all entering eighth grade at Anwatin Middle School — is fascinated by how her daughters’ brains are being developed on all fronts.
“While learning math in Spanish, there are different synapses happening. The right brain is language and creative, and the left is analytical and logical. So, you’re doing math which is left brain, and language which is right brain — gaining benefits and brain connections you wouldn’t gain if not studying a language with that material,” Colleen said.
As the world becomes more and more diversified, communicating and reaching out to others in another language is a beneficial skill. Case in point: Camryn Simmons is thinking about living abroad in Spain and France down the road. She has some experience with learning French to go along with her superb Spanish.
“I’m thinking about becoming a pediatrician. That way if people can’t get a translator, I can help them. Or I could be a translator until I get my real job,” she said.
Osorio stresses that America needs to embrace world languages. It’s imperative that students stay ahead of the curve.
“I believe it’s a way of education in the future — requirements will change and they may be a core class in high school,” she said.