Language Immersion Programs
Article by Britton Redbord and Rachel Sachetti
Research and Implementation
Children are often able to acquire a foreign language much easier and faster if they begin their course of study at an early age. According to the Fairfax County Virginia Public School website, research studies also "show that learning a second language at an early age has a positive effect on intellectual growth and leaves students with more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language, and improved listening skills."¹
Over the last 20 years, many school systems across the country have taken this research very seriously and started language immersion programs in the elementary schools. In Fairfax County, the partial immersion program was established as a means of teaching foreign language through curriculum instruction instead of being taught as a separate subject. At one Spanish Immersion school, the students spend half the day with one teacher learning Language Arts and Social Studies in English, and the other half with a fluent Spanish-speaking teacher, learning Math and Science in Spanish. The program begins in first grade and the students participate in the program until they reach middle school. At that point, they are transitioned into a more traditional foreign language study that is tailored to students who completed the elementary immersion program. Fairfax County currently offers immersion programs in Spanish, Japanese, French, or German at 13 elementary schools.
The goals of many immersion programs are to teach students to be fluent in a target language other than English, and to gain the skills necessary to understand and communicate in that language. In order for an immersion program to be successful, the students must be successful in all subject areas, as if they had learned them all in English.
The most obvious benefit of elementary foreign language immersion programs is that students emerge able to communicate in more than one language. If students continue their study of both languages through the upper grades, they are far ahead of other candidates applying for jobs into today's diverse working world. The asset of being bilingual is valued by all types of employers. Other benefits of being bilingual include a positive effect on intellectual growth, enhanced mental development, and an appreciation for cultures other than the child's own.¹
Learning a second language can also improve a child's understanding of his or her native language. As a child acquires language structures in the second language, he or she is continuously scaffolding, connecting, and comparing these new structures to what is already known.
Furthermore, the benefits of knowing a second language can extend beyond school. Being bilingual gives children the ability to communicate with people they would otherwise not have had the chance to know. Parents of immersion students often come back from vacations to other countries exclaiming with surprise how shocked they were when their 2nd grader was able to order the family's meals in the waiter's native language. Knowing a second language helps young children to understand how diverse our world is; that not everyone is like them. Throughout their education, they come to appreciate other languages and cultures. They gain a greater flexibility in thinking and problem solving as well.¹
Despite the multitude of benefits to an elementary partial-immersion program, there are a few drawbacks or ways the program could be improved. The most notable is the difficult transition in the focus of language instruction between the elementary and secondary schools. During the six years students are in the elementary immersion program, the language instruction is a whole language approach. Teachers focus on listening comprehension, oral skills, and vocabulary. Many times, the target language is used as a vehicle to teach the content areas math and science. Grammar is not explicitly taught. In middle school, students often switch to a more sequential method of language instruction.
An additional issue presented in a school system with immersion programs is ensuring teachers have the necessary resources to adapt the curriculum into another language. Too often, foreign language teachers are not provided with trade books and other materials appropriate for the students' level.
Many immersion teachers believe that their students are motivated to do their best, not only in Spanish but in English class as well. In the long run, these students will know another language and be able to communicate outside of the classroom. The positives of the program far out number the negatives, and it truly is amazing to walk into a second grade class and hear native English speakers learning in Spanish!
About the Authors
Britton Redbord is in her 3rd year of teaching 2nd grade in Fairfax County, Virginia. This is her 2nd year teaching the English half of a Spanish Immersion program. She has the opportunity to collaborate with her teaching partner and learn a lot of Spanish herself! She is currently obtaining her Masters of Arts in Educational Leadership and Administration from George Washington University in Washington DC.
Rachel Sachetti is also in her 3rd year of teaching 2nd grade in Fairfax County, Virginia. She taught in English for her first year and Spanish for the past two. She has learned so much by experiencing both sides of the immersion program! Rachel is currently pursuing her Masters Degree in Multicultural Education and an endorsement in Teaching English as a Second Language at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She one day hopes to experience second language acquisition from a third perspective, teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)!
Published: November 2003