The following article was written by Elizabeth Weise, Starr King parent and president of the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council
“There is no greater gift you can give your child than the gift of early bilingualism,” immersion expert Dr. Myriam Met told an audience of almost 200 parents in San Francisco on March 16. Children’s brains are pre-wired to learn language, a skill that has already begun to fade by ninth grade when most students begin studying a second language, she said.
“Immersion also gives your children tools to live in a new world, different from anything we can imagine,” said Dr. Met, a nationally-known expert on immersion programs who has helped create them across the globe. The biggest concern most parents have about immersion is whether it will hinder their children’s overall academic progress and whether they won’t learn English well. It won’t, Dr. Met told them.
Students in language immersion programs do at least as well as their monolingual peers in school, and often better, especially if they stay in immersion until at least the 8th grade, Dr. Met said.
Her evening talk covered what national and international research has shown about language immersion programs. For children who are native speakers of English, the benefits of immersion are clear. Research shows that when they are in one-way and two-way immersion programs, and are tested in English, their math and language arts scores were at or above national average by 5th grade. But they did even better when they stayed in immersion through at least 8th grade. Immersion is just as good for children who are learning English. In fact, the research shows that they do better in immersion than children learning English who aren’t in immersion, Dr. Met said.
The research she cited is based mostly on studies done of students in Spanish and French immersion, with minor studies done looking at Chinese immersion. While some of the studies were conducted within the San Francisco Unified School District, most were not. Dr. Met spoke generally about immersion, not specifically about immersion in San Francisco. She addressed head-on concerns about the well-known statistical achievement gap between native English speakers and students who are learning English in schools.
Nationwide research clearly shows that in general, English language learners who are in one and two-way immersion programs and are tested in English score at or slightly below national average by 5th grade in math and language arts. They, too, had the best outcomes when they continued in immersion through at least 8th grade. Most importantly, nationwide studies indicate that those students do better than their peers who are in not in immersion programs.
The statistical evidence suggests that immersion programs do not cause the achievement gap and in fact reduce it, Dr. Met said. Secondly, however much it might seem that more classroom time in English would help English language learners, there’s no evidence that transferring them from immersion programs to an English-only programs improves test scores. And as they move through school, English language learners in immersion programs drop-out at a lower rate than English language learners in English-only programs. “More time spent learning English doesn’t necessarily improve performance,” she said.
This is crucial information for parents either contemplating immersion or who have children in immersion programs, because somewhere between first and third grade, a substantial minority of parents note that other children, in English-only programs, seem to be ahead of their children. And they decide that it must be the immersion that’s the problem. In other words, said Dr. Met, “They panic.”
In extreme cases, the parents pull their children out of immersion and switch them to English-only programs. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do, the research shows. Immersion is a process and families have to trust in the process. All the benefits don’t become apparent in the first one or two or three years. It’s by 5th grade, and especially by 8th grade that the full benefits of the immersion experience become clear.
Pulling children out just as they’re starting but before they’ve had time to reap the benefits of immersion is a mistake that’s all too often made, she said. Of course results do vary, depending on the degree to which the school’s program is faithful to the immersion model, Dr. Met said. But there’s no statistical evidence that she’s seen that would indicate that immersion isn’t working in San Francisco schools.
One way to combat this early elementary slump is to create a buddy system, where families in the lower grades are paired with families in upper grades, so the new families have an example of where they can expect their children to end up. “Nobody is as convincing to a parent as another parent,” said Dr. Met.
“Immersion delivers on promises made,” Dr. Met said. Across the board, no matter what language they speak at home and what language they’re learning in school, students end up fully bilingual and biliterate, able to speak, read and write fluently in both languages.
One reason for that is the number of hours they spend learning in their immersion language, she noted. At the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, where the U.S. military and embassy staff learn languages, it’s assumed that it will take 240 hours of classroom time to reach an intermediate level in Spanish, and 480 hours to reach the same level in Chinese.
A typical high school student who studies a foreign language gets 125 hours of instruction a year, Dr. Met said. Immersion students in Kindergarten get 750 hours of classroom - five hours a day for 150 days. “That’s the power of immersion,” Dr. Met said.
What makes programs work?
For an immersion program to work well, several things have to be present, Dr. Met told the audience.
* It must be carefully planned.
* It must be ‘articulated,’ meaning what students learn flows clearly from year to year, and especially from school to school.
* Teachers must be well-trained.
* The school must have strong leadership from its principal and strong administrative support from its school district.
Getting trained teachers is a problem nationwide because today there are not enough teachers training for immersion in college. That creates a situation where “you’re flying the plane while you’re putting on the wings,” says Dr. Met. But until sufficient numbers of teachers trained in immersion begin to come through the pipeline, most immersion teachers will need on-the-job training and mentoring from more experienced teachers. The good news is that that happens in many San Francisco classrooms today.
Thank an immersion teacher today
Teaching, as anyone who’s spent any time in a classroom knows, is hard work. But it’s harder for immersion teachers. They must be able to function fully in two languages, they must always be ‘on’ in class, using mime, their imaginations and a host of props they often create themselves to get ideas across in a new language.
And they often have to translate or create their own teaching materials — all the while dealing with parent, school district, and state and federal level expectations. Immersion teaching “is the hardest kind of teaching there is,” said Dr. Met. “So thank your child’s teacher.”
Further information about research Dr. Met cited in her talk can be found at:
Dr. Met’s talk was sponsored by The San Francisco Unified School District’s Multilingual Education Dept., San Francisco Advocates for Multilingual Excellence and the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council. Financial support for childcare was provided through the generosity of the San Francisco’s Mayors Office. The talk was held at James Lick Middle School in San Francisco.
For more information on immersion in the San Francisco Public Schools, you can subscribe to an email list for San Francisco Advocates for Multilingual Excellence by sending a message to SF_AMEfirstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mandarin Immersion Parents Council can be found at http://miparentscouncil.org.
Elizabeth Weise, who is the president of the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council, can be reached at email@example.com