Language-immersion is a popular and viable trend among parents who want their children to not only make themselves more marketable to potential universities, but also benefit from the neurological advantages speaking a second language offers in their formative years.
There is a growing consensus among top educators and education experts that these are prime years for teaching and learning second languages. Studies show that the brain has a greater capacity to absorb knowledge and process languages the younger the child is.
While some parents may choose language immersion for cultural reasons, or to help their child assimilate in an environment in which English is not the primary language spoken, there are just as many who believe it offers students a superior education and taps into their natural ability to learn new concepts and theories.
The first native or majority language is known as L1, while the secondary or minority language is classified as L2. While there is a certain amount of controversy about the efficacy of these immersion programs, many parents and educators swear by their long-term results.
In an interview with Valeria Pelet of The Atlantic (theatlantic.com/education), Teresa Chávez, an educator for almost two decades and proponent of the method, sums up her feelings on language immersion beautifully: “I think that it’s wonderful to learn how to express oneself in more than one language, to be able to travel, work, have friends …”
Immersion programs were first popularized in this country in the 1960s in an effort to meet the needs of Spanish-language students in Florida.
Nowadays, dual-language immersion programs are popping up in cities and schools all across the country, including Pasadena. The curriculum is no longer limited to one or two languages traditionally offered, either. In addition to Spanish-language immersion, interested parents will find immersion programs in a variety of languages; Armenian, Japanese, Korean, German and Mandarin Chinese, among others. Since the cognitive benefits of early language development can apply to most any language studied, parents are often opting for more exotic languages, instead of merely the ones with the largest potential for regular, continued use. Still, some advocates believe that for best results, the immersion program needs to incorporate many facets of the people that speak the language.
According to the website We Are Teachers (www.weareteachers.com), instructors operate with the understanding that, in order to learn a language, students must 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.”
Many immersion programs work on the 90/10 principle for the initial years. Instruction is taught in the foreign language 90 percent of the time, with English only covering 10 percent of the instruction.
By fifth grade, they are eventually taught in both languages equally.
For local immersion programs, Pasadena Unified School District (pusd.us/Domain/1288) is an invaluable resource on public schools that provides this popular option. Additionally, the Pasadena Language Center (pasadenalanguage.com) is a remarkable and affordable private institution with vast experience in helping students manage the challenges of learning a new language. They work hard at making the work of learning a second language fun. Offering small-group instruction and individual classes in over 30 languages, their website proudly proclaims that their teachers “are experienced native speakers who are enthusiastic about teaching their language and are willing to share their culture.”
Nancy Macon, a local teacher whose first language is Spanish, and her husband, LeMont, an English-only speaker, recently placed their daughter Hilaria in a Spanish-language program and believe they’re already reaping the rewards from their decision.
“I wanted to place her in a language-immersion program because I know that being bilingual is very important,” explains Nancy. “I knew that learning a new language at an early age increases critical thinking skills and creativity. Not only that, but it also benefits her for the future as she enters the work force.”
Liz Setton is a San Gabriel Valley resident and the school her 8-year-old daughter, Margot, attends offers a rigorous Japanese immersion program. She, too, appreciates the touted benefits of teaching young minds a new language while their brains are still pliable and open to differing concepts.
“We figured why not give it a try? It’s pretty common knowledge that learning a language is much easier as a kid than as an adult. I’d also read that learning a second language can help your brain in all sorts of ways,” Setton says. “So even if she doesn’t really need to know Japanese in her adult life, she’ll still have benefitted cognitively from the process of learning it.”
Setton’s younger school-age child, Leo, has also started the school’s kindergarten program. This works out for the Setton family just fine. As the proud mom puts it, “Now Margot can help him with his homework.”