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« Language Immersion - Un Po' Can Make a Difference | Main | Oregon Connections Academy - profile »

Language Immersion – The What, Why and When

Most of you know a person who speaks two languages is bilingual. But what do you call a person who knows one language?

An American.

If the popularity of PPS’ foreign language immersion program is any indication, there are plenty of parents who hope their children will become the exception to that joke. Since its inception, Woodstock Elementary’s Mandarin Immersion program has doubled in size. The demand to get into any of the district’s language immersion programs greatly exceeds the number of spots available. And several private schools in the metro area either use foreign language immersion as their focus or incorporate regular foreign language instruction into their curriculum.

Parents seek out language programs for a variety of reasons, from a desire to prepare their children for an increasingly global economy to a desire to keep a foreign-born child in touch with their own cultural heritage. The benefit of learning a foreign language goes beyond the language itself, though and research overall supports the notion that younger is better when it comes to learning a foreign language.

The What

Language immersion programs are somewhat self-explanatory. Simply put, a student in an immersion program will be taught and talked to almost exclusively in the foreign language for a good portion of the day. Some schools spend half the day in the foreign language and the other half teaching in English. Others teach 90 or 100 percent in the foreign language, regardless of subject. Most will gradually reduce the instruction time in the foreign language as children get older, and ostensibly, become more proficient in the foreign language.

Most experts recognize that immersion is the best way for students to learn another language. Immersion students usually become proficient in the language more quickly and are more apt to use native-like pronunciation.

The Why

There are obvious benefits to becoming bilingual. Being able to speak Mandarin Chinese, for example, can be a vital, marketable skill when seeking a job that deals with the global economy. Speaking Spanish makes travel to Mexico, Central and South America an easier and richer experience. Bilingualism opens doors to other people and other cultures.

Even if the idea of your children becoming a foreign diplomat doesn’t excite you, the process of learning another language does pretty amazing things to the developing brain of a young child. Researchers have found immersion students develop strong problem solving skills from trying to make sense of what their teacher is saying. Some studies show a direct correlation between bilingualism and higher math skills. Learning to make sense of what someone is saying in another language also requires a higher level of focus and concentration, which is a nice way of fine-tuning a child’s executive function. While a child’s skills in English may lag behind while being taught exclusively in the foreign language, studies show students catch up with a year or two after English language arts instruction.  A 1992 report by the College Entrance Examination Board showed that students who had studied a foreign language for four years or longer scored higher on the verbal section of the SAT.

The When

Anyone who has watched a child figure out how to use a computer knows that young brains are much more agile and flexible than older brains.

Researchers seem to agree there is a critical time period for learning a foreign language best, and generally, the younger the better. Even by 6 months old, a child begins to gradually lose the ability to “hear” individual sounds in a foreign language. Adults who learned a second language as a young child tend to have a wider vocabulary and use a more native-like pronunciation.

Scientists studying the brain of bilinguals found they have more gray matter in the language area of the brain than monolinguals. The younger the person learned another language, the more gray matter he or she had.

Young children also use their brains more efficiently. They process the foreign language and the native language in an overlapping area of the brain.  If you can imagine that the foreign language is yellow and the native language is red, the area where both are stored in the brain would be filled with orange. After puberty, the brain will store a new language near the native language, but there will be fewer overlapping areas.

As for when a child should learn another language to obtain native-like fluency, I’m afraid that much of the research I’ve found says 0 to 5 is that critical time – basically, before a child would even attend public school. But several of those reports note exceptions to the rule, and in any event, note that learning another language at any time is better than never learning it at all. 

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