Friday, May 9, 2008

Language immersion alternatives

Didn't get into an immersion program? Opted for a private that only offers language an hour a day? What do you do?

Here are a few ideas for ways to immerse your kids in a language even if they didn't get into Flynn Spanish immersion or Alice Fong Yu or the French American School. If anyone has additional suggestions, please offer them up.

Chinese American International School
Summer program

French American International School
Summer program

Espanol for Kids
Spanish summer camp held at the Little Bear School

Mandarin Play and Learn
Saturday classes

Ace Mandarin Immersion Summer Camp

Have any additional suggestions?


  1. Not sure these should be labeled as "alternatives" to immersion.

    These enrichment programs are a fun way for children to be exposed to other languages, but your child will *not* speak a language fluently unless they spend 30 percent of their waking hours immersed in an another language.

    They'll learn a handful of songs and will be able to impress Grandma by counting to 20, naming colors, a few animals, foods and shapes. But that is a far cry from being able to speak a language.

  2. The Alliance Francaise has after school courses for children:

    There are also classes at the San Francisco Language Institute:

    Finally, the Parents' Press has some ideas about non-immersion language opportunities for children and families:

  3. To anon at 7:04 am:

    It's better than nothing as not all of us were lucky enough to be able to get into an immersion program and would at least like our kids to be exposed to another language.

  4. Depends on what your goal is.

    If your goal is for your child to speak the language, it is pretty much the same as nothing.

    If your goal is for your kid to appreciate other languages and cultures and even gain new insight into his/her own language, then it is better than nothing.

    I just hate to see people fork out $$$ thinking their kid is learning how to speak a language, only to be disappointed later.

    There is plenty of research to suggest that if children study a language for only a few hours a week, there is no real difference between starting at age 5 or 6 or starting when they are much older except for maybe a more native-like accent.

    That's why you see graduates of private schools that start Spanish in Pre-K (SF School and Children's Day) placing in the same High school Spanish classes as those from schools that don't start Spanish until 4th or 6th grade.

  5. I was born and grew up in Eastern Europe. There were no immersion programs. I took English two days a week for an hour with a teacher and was usually assigned homework that was worth another couple of hours a week. There were no English language movies, TV, or radio programs - even books other than textbooks were hard to get. I learned English as a foreign language (along with Russian and Italian)and I am hoping my daughter will learn a couple of languages too. I did not sign her up for an immersion program intentionally. I think she will be better off learning math and science in her native language and mastering her Mandarin or French or Spanish after school.

  6. I think it helps to study a few hours a week, certainly, but don't expect fluency. My husband also grew up in Eastern Europe where he studied English in school but his English was terrible when he came to the US in his 20's. His Russian is not passable. He now speaks, reads and writes English very well but that was mostly acquired after he came here.

  7. Gad I'm so tired of the language immersion santimonious responses.

    We put down language immersion programs in the first round and went 0 for 7. then we put down language immersion programs in the second round and went 0 for 8.

    We're not all lucky like Kate to get an immersion program then turn it down.

    For the rest of us, we need alternatives to immersion because SFUSD didn't provide it for us and we need alternatives.

  8. We put down language immersion programs in the first round and went 0 for 7. then we put down language immersion programs in the second round and went 0 for 8.

    This poster has a good point. I care about the immersion programs and my kid is in one, but there are people here who really tried to get one and didn't get lucky with the lottery. In that case, why not look for other ways to expose the kids to other languages? It's great to expose the kids like this. It can't hurt with language development down the road. We get it, they are not immersion. But why dis them? It's like saying you can't take ever music classes if you don't get into Julliard or something.

  9. Anyone know how long the waitlist is for Revere IMMS right now? Judging by the numbers of folks here who enrolled their kids there, I'm obviously not the only one who thinks Revere is the next immersion star. One of the hard decisions we had to make after going 0/7 in Round I was whether to prioritize immersion over other factors in choosing both amended options and a waitpool choice. If we were still waitlisting, I would be tempted to do so as Revere (if they indeed remain full during open enrollment, that is). At least then there is hope. I think Revere's (poor) reputation does not match its current offerings or culture. I liked it a lot.

    McKinley has Spanish 2/x week, yes? Are they the only non-IMMS ES that does?

  10. Going 0 for 7 doesn't change the facts about language acquisition.

    There are reams of academic research studies on the subject.

    Wishing it were different doesn't make it so.

    We have friends who are very frustrated because their kid has been taking Spanish 3X a week since she was 3 (she is now 6). They have spent a pretty penny and the kid still can't speak it. But they had unrealistic expectations to begin with.

    BTW: The comparison to Juillard is not relevant. You can be fluent in English without getting into the Iowa Writers program ;-)

  11. Americans have a different definition of fluency than the rest of the workd.

    When I was in a hiring position, I would see hundreds of resumes from candidates claiming fluency in other languages. But when asked if they could negotiate a business deal in that language or write business correspondence the answer was always "no" or "not really". Which begged the question: Why are you listing a skill you cannot use on the job?

  12. Sign up your kid for the Mission Youth Soccer League.

  13. Do they have a website?

    Also: I'd love for my daughter to learn Mexican folk dancing. There used to be a ballet folclorico called "Ensambles de San Francisco" that had open classes on Saturdays for kids, but I can't seem to find them anymore...

  14. Sheesh - so much negativity. I thought this was a great post. I didn't know that some of these summer camp options existed. Thanks for the info.

  15. Marlowe's MomMay 12, 2008 at 12:26 PM

    Language acquisition is not just a question of how many hours per week of instruction, but how hard you work at it. I don't think most small children who speak English at home and conduct most of their lives in English have the discipline or drive to really learn another language fluently unless they're in an immersion program. At the same time, I think any amount of instruction is valuable, because if you want to acquire the language when you get older and have the discipline, you've got some grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation to build on rather than starting from scratch. It would be interesting to know how many kids who do language exposure programs in primary school keep up with the language in secondary school. I definitely buy the old saw that at the secondary school level, foreign language study helps in understanding the grammar of the native language.

  16. Let's Play In Spanish, a penninsula organization, offers classes in Noe Valley. My daughter loves the class and the administration is really wonderful.

    408-370 3399

  17. I was an English as a Foreign Language teacher for 4 years in Europe and I have to say: learning a foreign language an hour a day (or for a summer program) might not make you completely fluent, but it can give you conversational fluency --a great basis for fluency later (in that language or others).

    It is simply incorrect to say that there is no difference between an hour a day (or 3x/week) exposure to a second language and no exposure! With a good instructor and a program that does not teach the second language in English, a child can have a nice, solid foundation in a language (and enough, as I said, for a conversation with a native speaker or as a basis for fluency later!)

    Why should fluency be the only target? I am fluent in two languages but have a conversational ability with another two and I wouldn't trade that conversational ability in for the world!

    The key is HOW the language is taught --it's easy enough for a child to have language classes once a week for years and learn nothing: but this is faulty method and instruction (quite prevalent), not the fault of quantity.

  18. I would rather be completely bilingual and biliterate, and be able to live and work in two cultures, than able to chat about the weather with cabdrivers in half a dozen languages ;-)

    BTW: What the research says is that older kids pick up a language faster in language classes than younger kids. But remember, that is in FLES/enrichment models where native-like fluency is not even a goal. In other words, there is little difference (except for accent) between the kids who start in kindergarten and the kids who start in 4th or 5th because the older kids pick up the language instruction faster. That's why CHildren's Day School and SF School kids place in high school Spanish 2 -- just like the Burke's girls and SF Day kids -- even though they started Spanish several years prior.

    HOWEVER, in an immersion model where native-like fluency *is* the goal and immersion is the method, the younger, the better.

  19. What happens to the kids who leave an immersion program after 5th grade - do they still remain fluent?

  20. Their language gets very rusty and, unless they continue to pursue it, their vocabulary gets stuck or erodes...

    So while their vocabulary in 5th grade might be the equivalent of a 3rd grader attending an equivalent school in Mexico.. When that Mexican kid is in 12th grade and has the vocabulary of a 12 grader, the US immersion kid who stopped taking Spanish in 5th grade is also 18 years old but has the vocabulary of a 2nd or 3rd grader.

  21. 7:23

    so, do you think that if sometime in the future that person wanted to learn more spanish it would be much easier for them than someone who had never had any spanish? seems like it would...

  22. also, my kid is only in preschool and i feel like he can already communicate very well.

    if he comes out of his immersion program in fifth grade with 2nd or 3rd grade language skills (in our case mandarin) that would be great.

    if he enjoys it, that is!!

  23. Speaking as a parent who has kids at the French Lycee, I would say you have to consider your real goals when you put your child in a bilingual or immersion program.

    There are lots of different worthwhile goals, and lots of different ways of reaching them. It's silly to say that becoming "completely bilingual and biliterate" is the only one worth pursuing. That's like saying you shouldn't bother learning long division unless you plan on going all the way to multivariable calculus.

    Yes, achieving "native-like fluency" will take many hours per week over many years. But when your kids get there, remember that it won't make them any smarter or wiser or nicer than the kids who "only" get to the AP test level in high school and still speak the language with an accent. If you want your child to understand that the English language is not the only home for thought and feeling, then starting in middle school and aiming for the AP level in high school will get you there. This level is routinely achieved by many kids in public and private schools in SF. Starting early in elementary school is a nice extra, but not essential.

    Going the full immersion route also has wonderful benefits, but these are more cultural and emotional than cognitive. It's really tied to the sense of truly belonging to another culture. Most families at the French Lycee have at least one parent who maintains a French identity. That's not mandatory, there are non-French speaking parents who send their kids to the school, and these kids usually pick up the language like natives. But it's been my experience that if you put children into language immersion without any motivating cultural or emotional context in the family, a few of them won't be happy and may end up rebelling against the whole idea. This is particularly the case when everything in their life outside of school takes place in English. I've seen this a few times at the Lycee, where non-French speaking families have had to pull a child out of the school when it became evident he or she wasn't keeping up with the peer group. This usually happens around 4th or 5th grade, and in my non-scientific observation seems to happen more often to boys than to girls.

    On the other hand, I've also seen families switch kids who were doing very well in French back to American school, and those kids do seem to retain their French quite well into the high school years.

    So I guess the bottom line is: figure out what your goals are, keep in mind that you are doing this for cultural rather than utilitarian reasons (it won't make kids smarter or get them a better job), and remember that not all kids are the same, even in immersion.

  24. Sorry, but there *are* cognitive advantages to full bilingualism that are not achieved by language "enrichment" classes...

    Also: I wouldn't equate "fluency" with calculus but with being able to do the simple arithmetic of every day life instead of just counting to 100 ... THe goal isn't completing an award-winning novel in the target language, but full bilingualism.


    In any event, I think the first poster on this thread wasn't "dissing" enrichment programs as much as he/she was urging folks to be clear on their goals.

    THey are not alternate routes to the same goal.

  25. Read the research on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism before you claim the benefits are only cultural.

    One research study in Canada even posited that balanced bilinguals typically developed dementia a full 4 years after their monolingual peers.


  26. "Sorry, but there *are* cognitive advantages to full bilingualism that are not achieved by language "enrichment" classes..."

    OK then, I'm willing to learn. How about some examples? Give us your three best bullet points on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism (with references so we can educate ourselves).

    "One research study in Canada even posited that balanced bilinguals typically developed dementia a full 4 years after their monolingual peers."

    Yep, that's a benefit all right! If the study holds up. Did they control for education and IQ (other factors known to delay the onset of dementia)?

    Meanwhile, can I ask either of these posters (assuming they're different people) if they actually have kids in bilingual programs or are bilingual themselves? You see, I'm intrigued by your academic arguments and would be delighted if they turned out to be true. But I find they don't quite match my own observational experience, which is extensive. And I question their relevance to parents making choices about what school to put their children in.

    I myself am "bilingual and biliterate" in French – I acquired it as an adult, and have a slight trace accent, but mastered it well enough to work for several years in Paris as the editor-in-chief of a fairly large French magazine. My children are not simply bilingual but actually native trilinguals, phonetically perfect and fully literate in two languages (French and English) and very close to perfect in a third (their Asian mother tongue). Although they are very bright children and I love them dearly, I can't honestly say that their multi-lingualism has improved their cognitive skills in any way that I can clearly perceive or measure. (Perhaps we will have to wait until they're at an age where dementia is an issue?) I've had the occasion over a number of years to observe many completely bilingual children, and I've found that they run the gamut from extremely bright to kind of thick.

    I recount this background so that readers can judge for themselves whether to attach credence to my observation that raising your kids to be bilingual (a wonderful goal that I highly recommend) is something you should do for the "soft" cultural benefits rather than to improve their "hard" cognitive skills. For the rest, teach them how to think and write, then teach them math and science. And history, of course (but only when they really know a lot about life).

    Yes, I know that bilinguals have a different cortical representation of language, and this may have consequences in certain situations (e.g. how they react to strokes affecting the language areas). But the same holds true for highly practiced professional musicians, and yet I expect most of us want to expose our children to music so that they can enjoy it, not to make their brains better.

    Parents, be pragmatic, tailor your kids' language education to who they really are, and who you want them to be, and you can't go wrong.

    For those experts out there who are sure I'm wrong – fine, maybe you're right. But if you want to persuade me, tell me about your own experiences, and cite your references, so that I can decide for myself whether you have something to teach me.

  27. I think Parents Place is having a workshop or panel on giving your kids the gift of another language. Someone told me it is happening in early October. I couldn't find it on their website, so you might want to call them directly.


  29. Another good resource is the Multilingual Children's Association.

  30. The question isn't whether there are "thick" bilinguals.. but whether those same children would be even "thicker" if they only had one language ;-)

    BTW: I'm bilingual and biliterate and graduated from an international school abroad. In my graduating class, the native Spanish speakers who mastered English scored higher on the SATs than the monolingual English speakers who only spoke a few words of Spanish. Granted, that is hardly a scientific study, but still...

    My daughter attends a monolingual preschool where she is the youngest in her class. The teacher keeps remarking that she is much more advanced than the other kids in terms of abstract thinking, creativity and pre-literacy despite being the youngest. But, unlike her teacher, I do *not* think this is a sign she is gifted. These just happen to be the areas where bilingual kids typically excel. Among her bilingual same-age peers, she is just one of the bunch on those measures.

  31. Here are links to stories on the Canadian study on the delay of dementia:

  32. My family is filled with multi-lingual individuals, none of whom were educated in bilingual environments at a young age. My sister speaks 6 languages fluently. Her Spanish is so perfect, including accent, that she is usually mistaken for being from Latin America. I have witnessed her translate a Spanish tour of a Chilean winery into English for American tourists and into Portugese for Brazilian tourists at the same time. She started studying Spanish in college. My brother's Japanese is so impressive that he receives many accolades (and confused stares) when he performs Karaoke regularly at Japanese clubs, then chats in Japanese with the locals. My mother speaks fluent Russian, which she started studying in her 30's. No one in my family started learning any language before age 10, maybe even 12, and in some cases, even older. Without the benefit of immersion, they scored in the top 99th percentile on the SAT, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from outstanding colleges, and were admitted to top grad school programs. Maybe they are just 'smart.'

    The truth is that there are many ways to learn a language. It may take more "effort" to learn a language as an adult, but it's very possible, even to acquire a perfect accent. Try living abroad for a year and see how easy it gets.

    We opted not to do immersion because we didn't get any of our immersion picks, and we don't have the time or interest in a turn-around school like Paul Revere.

    Good for you, folks who landed Alvarado, AFY and Buena Vista in the lottery. But your children may tire of the foreign language as a teenager, and you won't be able to force them to keep it up.

    Meanwhile, we will enjoy the cognitive advantages of some foreign language instruction (an hour a day) starting in kindergarten, in addition to a rigorous academic curriculum that includes science, art and math, and a low student-to-teacher ratio.

    There are lots of ways to give children cognitive advantages, and immersion is not the only way.

  33. But would they score in the 99th percentile if the SAT were in Russian? Japanese? I doubt it.

    "Fluency" is a very relative term.

    BTW: One *can* learn science and math in a language other than English. Some of the world's best scientists and mathematicians have native languages other than English. I resent the implication that only a monolingual, English-language school can do a good job of teaching math and science.

  34. Our family was 0/7 in round one and decided to waitlist Paul Revere Spanish Immersion in round two because we feel the school has a strong principal and it is a K-8, which is really attractive to continue the language acquisition and not have to transfer to a large middle school. When we started this process in September, we were of the frame of mind that we would "hold out" for what we thought was our dream immersion program, but after going through the stress of round one and seeing the huge increase in enrollment this year, we found that we didn't want to gamble and lose out on getting into an immersion program.
    We observed both kindergarten classes again and saw that the children appeared engaged, confident and happy. At that point, not everyone who was offered a spot had enrolled (EPC probably has the accurate enrollment numbers).
    Good Luck

  35. My worry about immersion is that it's the current fad, and 10 years down the road studies will show immersion children not learning in their primary language do not acquire the necessary fundamentals (reading and arithmatic) as well as their peers. When you scan brain activity of people listening to oral information, the pattern is quite different when someone is listening to their native language rather than a secondary language. I know that immersion programs are a fairly new phenomenom in SFUSD. Does anyone know of any long-term analysis of the efficacy immersion education? (preferably large-scale rather than anecdotal, though I recognize unsubstantiated anecdotes are The SF K Files bread and butter)

  36. Immersion programs might be a fad in SF, but they've been in existence in Canada for many, many decades. (Or hundreds of years, actually, if you count the French Lycee system around the world.)

    In fact, some would say most human beings on the planet *are* bilingual, even though in the US being bilingual is the exception, not the norm.

    If you are immersed from a young age, you have the opportunity to develop two native languages, so your points about math and science being weaker if taught in the second language are moot if the program is strong.

  37. 4:28 -- good for you. paul revere is such an appealing school. i'm glad i wasn't the only one who thought the kids were some of the most engaged i'd seen anywhere (along with flynn's). had we not lucked out in the first waitpool and gotten another immersion school from our original list, i think we would have waitlisted PR as well. contrary to 12:28's perspective, there isn't much to "turn around" there at all. (and how 'bout that grant that guarantees a class size of no greater than 18 or 19 through 8th grade for the next seven years?)

    on another note...did anyone else hear that fairmount's outgoing principal, karling aguilera-fort, was named assistant superintendent (or some such)? can anyone validate that? that would be great for SF's immersion programs generally, i would think. he worked hard to get fairmount declared an immersion-only school. anyone have news on who the new principal might be?

  38. Kids at Chinese American routinely win city-wide Math competitions even though they learn Math in Mandarin, their second language.

  39. yes, karling took the asst sup job and they are currently interviewing for a fairmount principal. no news yet on who.

  40. A Leonard Flynn SI parent told me next year's kindergarten SI class will be completely filled by siblings, with only one other open slot.

    Can anyone confirm?

  41. re: flynn IMMS: by "next year," do you mean 2008-9? we got in in the first waitpool run, not on sibling preference.

  42. I shocked at the snippiness of the comments on bilingualism in this thread! Let's all show off how many languages we speak and how smart our siblings are as they impress the world with their amazing language and testing ability!

    The problem in this city is that the schools don't have resources and the teachers are paid c***. Immersion doesn't change that. The immersion programs I saw in Spanish had teachers who were not native-like speakers in Spanish and, more importantly, didn't seem to be great teachers (or they are trapped in a curriculum not of their choosing).

    Frankly, as the parent of a second grader, what's most important are who your kids' peers will be. They pay much more attention to their peers and to what happens at lunch and at recess than to what the teachers are doing, much less what language it's in. It's the playground dramas that are going to make or break your kid's education in kindergarten.
    Kate's choice to send her kid to Jose Ortega is a foolish one.

  43. 11:48---


    I was in agreement with you until your last sentence.
    Did you mean to come off so judgmental?

  44. wow. i was just looking for information on immersion schools in sf, and i'm really glad i found this post! (my son's only 5 months but having learn to speak a foreign language at a young age is a priority for me and my husband) although i think some of the posts seem a bit snotty...i'm actually really grateful for them. i'm going to really re-think our goals for our son to learn another language. at one point, i was considering living on barely nothing so that we could pay for CAIS!! maybe 45 minutes a day every day after school will suffice. my husband did that with cantonese, and although he's not "fluent," he can speak cantonese just fine and understand cantonese movies without subtitles. so...i guess that's something for others to think of. Also, i know some people who lived abroad in college for a year and came back being able to speak the language even better than ever. so $20k / year for CAIS? Or...$20k for a study abroad year during college. the latter is definitely more affordable.

  45. I've also been looking at immersion and "enrichment" programs in and around San Francisco, and started a blog to share what I've found: Please come check it out if you're interested.