Archive for the ‘Parents’ Category

Video Extras Offer More Food for Thought About Immersion Education

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

As a writer I know that plenty of what comes out of my pen (or keyboard) never sees the light of day. Sometimes I have to cut entire paragraphs or pages–even ones I really like–simply because they don’t serve the overall purpose of the story or article. In my case these get relegated to a file called “leftovers” and spend purgatory in my computer hoping to be called up another day. Sadly, I don’t think that day has come for any of my leftovers, but I still can’t bear to throw them away.

When people make a film, a similar thing happens, but on a much grander scale. Filmmakers spend hundreds of hours and many more dollars scouting locations, receiving permission, employing a crew, hiring equipment, and setting up lighting and sound gear to shoot many hours of footage, comparatively few minutes of which make it into the final version of their films. Those hours in the editing room letting go of great stuff that just won’t fit or that has to be sacrificed so other points can be made must be much more painful than my cutting and pasting into a ‘leftover’ file because that work represents so much effort and energy from so many people.

Fortunately, we now have the Internet, and some of those great scenes can now be seen and shared. Material that didn’t make the cut or caused the story to stray can now enhance viewers’ experience of the finished product–just like dvd extras do.  Speaking in Tongues filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider have recently posted ten of these video extras on the Speaking in Tongues site.  (Make sure to use the scroll bar on the right of the screen so you can watch them all.)

The extras run the gamut from Mimi Met, Senior Research Associate at the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland, discussing the importance of multilingualism in creating a more peaceful world to educator Laura Ringard expanding on the value of bilingualism for enhancing cognitive function. A Mandarin immersion kindergarten class joyfully sings a children’s song with their teacher, and a 3rd grade science class measures and discusses the progress of plants in their garden entirely in Cantonese. The extras also delve into more controversial topics such as the lag in standardized test scores of immersion students who are taught in the target language but tested in English before they have received as much instruction in that language as their monolingual peers. A touching episode on integration and immersion features a Spanish-speaking mother who decides to enroll her daughter in a Mandarin immersion program as well as insight from an African American mother and a school employee about how learning a second language can open new opportunities for children.

I hope you have a look and that these extras help answer some questions that Speaking in Tongues may have raised for you.  Spread the word to family and friends and let us know what you think about these videos in the comment section below.

And just for fun, check out this excellent audio extra in the form of a World in Words podcast from Public Radio International’s The World and Patrick Cox.  Cox devotes about half the show to Speaking in Tongues, interviewing Ken and Marcia as well as their younger son Jaden, who points out that it’s useful for he and his brother to be able to communicate in a language their parents can’t understand.  No doubt that’s true!

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Continuing Immersion Through Middle School: It’s Not Just About the Language

Monday, August 30th, 2010

After years of criticism from those who don’t get their top choices and others who prefer that their children have a secure spot at a neighborhood school, the San Francisco Unified School District has bowed to the pressure to redesign their controversial lottery system.  The new system, which places a higher priority on neighborhood schools at all levels, while still offering families some choice, was revealed on August 18–along with the proposal for which elementary schools will feed into which middle schools. Traffic on immersion parent email lists has been quite busy lately, and most of these parents are less than thrilled with the district’s proposals.

In a nutshell, the district plans to relocate established programs at some middle schools while establishing new immersion programs at underperforming schools and spreading the programs across a wider geographic area.  It’s complicated, to say the least, and it also raises the question for many families of whether or not to continue immersion beyond 5th grade.

According to the traditional plan for immersion, middle school instruction is reduced to two classes per day taught in the target language: a language arts class and social studies.  It is assumed that immersion students who have been in a K-5 program have a strong foundation in both languages by this point, but in order to maintain high-level competency and academic skills in the target language, instruction must continue, just as it does in the dominant language, in this case English. In high school, kids who have steadily followed a K-8 immersion track are eligible to take Advance Placement and 300-level college courses in the target language, exempting them from language requirements when they enroll in college and in many cases giving them a head-start on credits toward their bachelor’s degrees.

But by the time a child is 11 or 12 years old, language immersion is not the only factor to consider when choosing a school.  Consider this post on the SF Advocates for Multilingual Education list recently:

Middle school starts being less about the parents’ choice and more about the kids’ choice. We ended up going with immersion for middle school, but other factors we considered included:

– GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) designation: Our child was identified for GATE. Did we want to push for a school with GATE programming in place even if it wasn’t optimal for furthering her Spanish?

-Music and other extracurriculars: Our kid loved the flute and had a talent for it. Alas, the immersion school did not have a band where she could continue–and we had just finished paying off the flute we bought on an installment plan!

-Transportation: Whether or not your kid can ride public transit or walk home can affect choice. We ruled out one high-performing school in part because of location, though it did have a great band!

-After school programming: The ASP our daughter had attended since 1st grade had been a walk-to Boys & Girls Club, but a middle school far away made that no longer feasible.  We considered yet another school because of its proximity to the same B&G Club  where she would be able to continue in the ASP.

-How the kid is faring in the target language: Our elementary school did not use standards-based report cards at that time, and since no testing or assessments were done regularly in the target language, I felt VERY unclear in the fall of 5th grade whether this non-native speaker kid was strong enough in the target language to handle the demands of middle school academics. If a kid really is struggling in the target language in early 5th grade, a reasonable parent might want to cut their losses rather than have the kid continue!

-How the kid feels about it: My kid went through a period of being “sick of this” in 4th and early 5th grade but made the decision to continue. I think that was mostly a social decision in that her close friends were almost all continuing immersion at one particular middle school, and she wanted to stay with them. But if a kid’s best friends are going elsewhere, the kid might be better off not being forced to continue immersion if he/she has not really bought into the concept.

What do you think, parents?  How does continuing immersion rank as a priority in your middle school preferences? Are there other considerations families need to keep in mind?  Leave a comment below!

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Lessons from Utah: How a ‘Red State’ is Building Thriving Language Immersion Programs

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

The following is part 1 of an email interview with Gregg Roberts, World Languages & Dual Immersion Specialist for the Utah State Office of Education.  Despite having designated English as the official language of the state and traditionally conservative politics, Utah has become a leader in language immersion education.  Roberts shares his insights and perspectives with us here.

In the conservative Salt Lake City newspaper, Deseret News you were recently quoted as saying “Our main goal is to mainstream immersion…to make that option available to all parents.” How would you characterize the overall reaction of parents and other Utah citizens to the news that Utah plans to “mainstream immersion”?

For the most part I would say it has been very enthusiastically received, especially in the business community, the state legislature, the educational establishment and amongst younger parents. The opposition is coming from the older generation, the less educated populace, and teacher unions who are worried about the jobs of underperforming monolingual teachers.

How long has elementary school language immersion been happening in Utah and what does the future hold for immersion education there?

The first elementary Spanish immersion programs in Utah began back in the early eighties. However, there has not been much growth until the State Legislature created the Utah Dual Immersion program in 2008 with Senate Bill 41. There will be an additional 14 new programs this year bringing the total to 51 for the 2010-11 school year. Our goal is to have 100 programs in five different languages by the 2014-15 school year, so we will need to add 12-14 programs each year to stay on pace. Utah currently has programs in Chinese, French, and Spanish, and will add German in 2011 and Russian in 2012.

Has Speaking in Tongues been useful in helping citizens to understand the goals and challenges of immersion education?

Speaking in Tongues has been extremely useful particularly with business, government and education leaders. We found the Chinese examples particularly useful, and worked with Patchworks Films on a special short video, Inside Immersion: A Chinese Example. However, one must remember that the politics in Utah are counter to one of the principal arguments in the film, English Only, which become problematic for us in Utah. The official language of the State of Utah is English; paradoxically immersion programs are flourishing all over this conservative state. In my opinion, Immersion education should NOT be linked to English only and immigration. Dual Immersion in Utah is NOT a red issue or a blue issue; it’s a purple issue meaning that it should be a non-partisan issue. It’s all about preparing our students for the 21st Century and not continuing to live in the 20th. Finally, in Utah, giving the gift of a second language to a child is all about economics!

What were the motivating factors prompting Utah’s decision to launch so many new immersion programs at one time?

Economic, Economic, Economic! Utah is a small state, so for our economic survival and the national security of our country we MUST educate students who are multilingual. In these tough budget times, the only reason why the State Legislature continues to fund this program, while all others have been cut or reduced, is because this program is tied directly to the future economic development of Utah.

What about the practical struggles of implementing these programs, for instance, how did you find so many teachers so quickly?

Yes, there have been struggles in finding qualified teachers. However, Utah has the highest percentage of native English speakers who can speak a second language so we already had some highly trained elementary teachers who were highly proficient in the immersion language. In addition, Utah has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with China, Spain, Mexico, France, and Taiwan, and these agreements are currently providing about 30 highly skilled elementary International Guest Teachers. In addition, Utah has two renowned universities, University of Utah and Brigham Young University, which are starting to produce elementary teachers who are either native speakers or highly proficient in the target language. Finally the Utah State Office of Education has created an outstanding Alternative Routes to Licensure (ARL) program that has produced some excellent native speaking or highly proficient in the target language teachers who have come from other professions.

What type of choice do parents have in selecting immersion (or not) for their children?

Utah is an open enrollment state, which means parents can chose the school their child attends. All of our Dual Immersion programs are strands that exist in the same school as traditional education since choice in education is extremely important in Utah. Each district participating in the program is permitted to set their enrollment policy and it differs from district to district. However, districts have been great about opening more Dual Immersion programs as the demand increases, thus it is all about meeting the needs of parents and students.

Utah is the first in the nation to develop standardized immersion curriculum. What sort of expertise was required for this curriculum development? How has it been received? Do you feel it could be improved?

Utah has brought in some of the finest immersion experts in the country to work hand-in-hand with our highly skilled curriculum development team. Please remember that the main premise of immersion education is to teach the core content areas through the medium of another language. Thus, our state-approved curriculum aligned to the Utah State Core has been warmly received. In addition, we have also created an enhanced literacy strand in each immersion language. Of course we feel our curriculum can always be improved and we are proud to be releasing our new and improved integrated curriculum (Science and Social Studies) in Chinese, French, and Spanish this year. Utah has agreed to move to the Common Core Standards so this year we will be working on aligning our Math and Language Arts curriculum to the Common Core.

I noticed that your programs are designed for 50/50 immersion meaning that students will spend half their day in English instruction and half their day in the target language. In other programs, such as San Francisco’s public schools, the model is to begin with 80-90% of a child’s instruction in the target language and gradually increase the amount of English instruction time as the children age. How will Utah’s programs change for the students from year to year, and what informed the decision to do 50/50 rather than 90/10 or 80/20?

I personally abhor anything but a 50/50 model for instructional and political reasons! In Utah we use a balanced two teacher model to clearly respect the separation of languages. In addition, our model is a K-12 model where students receive 50/50 instruction grades 1-6, two content course in the target language in grades 7-9, take the AP exam in grade 9, then enroll in university 300-level language courses in grades 10-12. Our goal when these students graduate from high school is to hand them off to universities or the workforce at the advanced level of proficiency in speaking, listening, reading and writing.

In June, representatives from Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and North and South Carolina dropped in to take a peek at the state’s program. How do you feel about being a role model for immersion programs across the country?

We feel very honored and fortunate. I strongly believe if Utah can do this, so can (some) other states. Of course, all politics being local, and yes there are plenty of politics in immersion education, they may need to tweak our model to meet their own unique landscape.

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Conversations with my Son on the Eve of Kindergarten

Monday, August 16th, 2010

My baby is starting kindergarten today. It’s the end of an era for our family, and I’ve been a little emotional.

He’s ready, I know.  And he’ll do fine.  But he’s still a bit nervous.

The fact that one of his best friends will be in his class is a huge comfort to all of us! And of course, we know the school and his teachers already and couldn’t be happier about either.

But the fact remains. My not-quite-five-year-old will spend 6 hours a day in a relatively unfamiliar environment being spoken to in a language he doesn’t understand.

He knows this. He’s not sure how he feels about it.

Last week the two of us sat down to watch Speaking in Tongues together. He took it in, despite his tender age. His brother’s school—now his school—is featured. There are lots of familiar faces. He certainly got a sneak preview of what his coming year might be like.

But when he watched the scene of the Cantonese kindergarten class being led through backpack protocol by their teacher on the first day, he froze.

“How do you feel about that?” I asked.

“Not good,” he said in a small voice.

I swallowed hard. This scene is always touching: tiny little kindergarteners in a big, unfamiliar school bewildered by the speech of the only adult in the room. But here I was imagining my own shy little guy—whose name begins with “A”, like Alex in the film, the first student to go before the class and be led through the backpack drill—going through the same thing. Ouch. Will he be able to handle it?

Please don’t let him be one of those kids who cries at drop-off!

“Will you be a teacher in my class sometimes?” he asked.

He’s been through two years of co-op preschool. That means he saw me or his dad in his classroom at least one morning a week for the three days per week he attended.

“Sometimes I’ll be there,” I said. “But I won’t really be a teacher, and I can’t come at first.”

Our kindergarten teachers welcome parent volunteering, but if we can’t speak Mandarin, our tasks are limited to cutting and stapling in the back of the room, and chaperoning the occasional field trip. Moreover, parents are asked not to be in the classroom at all for the first couple of weeks so the kids can get used to the routine.

I may end up with separation anxiety.

As we talked, I realized my little boy was under the impression he would be spending time with his older brother, entering second grade, while he was at school. It was hard to burst that bubble. A summer of a little too much togetherness has had my boys at each others’ throats more often than I care to think about lately, so the fact that my younger son was comforted in the knowledge that his brother would be around was heartwarming.

“You might see each other when you’re finishing lunch, and he’s starting lunch, or maybe sometimes in the halls, but that’s all,” I was forced to tell him. “You will be in your classroom with your teacher. He will be in a different classroom with his teacher.”

He took it in. Solemnly.

We watched that scene again. “See,” I said, “the teacher’s really nice, and she’s showing them what to do. If you just watch your teacher, you’ll figure it out. And you already know some Chinese!” I said encouragingly. The fact that this scene is in Cantonese, and my son’s day would be in Mandarin, made little difference at this point, I figured. Still, she said the word for backpack quite a few times…I had picked it up. And it sounded familiar. I found myself hoping it was a cognate!

That evening at dinner I asked my older son “So, how do you say backpack in Mandarin?”

“Shi bao! I’ve told you a million times!”

Shrugging off the derision of my seven-year-old, I turned to my younger son. “See. It’s the same!” I told him. “Shi bao! You already know backpack!”

He will be ok. At least for the first day…

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Watch Speaking in Tongues on TV–With Friends!

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Speaking in Tongues isn’t just a film that should be watched. It’s a film that should be talked about. The issues are relevant and timely, and the stories are compelling. I personally don’t know of anyone who could get through the scene of Jason’s graduation without at least getting choked up (I cry every time I see it).

Fortunately, the National PBS Broadcast is in full swing, giving folks all over the U.S. an easy opportunity to see and discuss the film. Broadcasts are scheduled throughout September including repeats in several regions. Check the SIT website to find broadcast times and stations where you live.

And if you plan to watch Speaking In Tongues on television, why not invite some friends over to watch with you and discuss afterward? It’s a great way to increase the film’s impact and broaden the conversation about multilingual education, English-only policies, globalization, immigration, and cultural heritage.

Hosting a house party doesn’t have to be a big deal. It could mean inviting the next door neighbors over for take-out, or gathering some families from your children’s pre-school or daycare. Sweeten the deal by making it a dessert potluck. If you are on neighborhood, school, church, or parent email lists in your community, you could toss the idea out on the list. If you happen to live in an area where the film is only broadcast at times that aren’t very party-conducive, set your TiVo (or other device) to record. Once the film has aired, drop a line to the list letting folks know that you have it available and are willing to show it at 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. rather than 4:00 in the morning!

Community and Town Hall screenings of Speaking in Tongues have already played an important role in changing the way people think about these issues. As an example, check out this earlier guest blog by Sara Shorin, whose efforts helped to secure the future of a successful Spanish immersion program in Lake Tahoe, Calif. If you’re interested in increasing thinking about the issues raised in the film, there’s no better place to start than your own living room. Who knows, maybe after viewing and conversation you will find yourself in the company of a group of activists ready to make change in your community and in the future of multilingual education!

Here are some tips for throwing a viewing party, courtesy of the transpartisan national organization, Moms Rising: Of course you’ll have to adapt it to suit your purposes, but these folks have really thought of everything!

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Keeping Up With a Second Language Over Summer Vacation

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

School will start again soon. I’m looking forward to it in many ways. I’ll have more time for the blog, for one thing. Of course I’m a little nervous about my baby going off to kindergarten—and how he will handle the immersion environment. I’m also a little concerned about his older brother who will enter second grade and may have a brand new teacher since there has been some shuffling around of staff at their school. And, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I’m also a little concerned about my older son’s Mandarin.

Going from 5 hours a day 5 days a week of Mandarin immersion to, well, pretty much zero for 10 weeks of summer will definitely cause some backsliding. I’ve tried to keep his language skills up over the summer, but, I admit it, I haven’t tried as hard as I could have. He has friends who actually traveled to China or Taiwan this summer and others who attended Chinese summer camp at the Chinese American International School.

I did show him this amazing magic trick performed by the famous Liu Qian (I was pleased to have him explain some of the jokes to me, but the illusion is awesome even if you don’t understand Mandarin). He has read along with some stories from the fabulous Taiwanese reading program, 5Q Channel. One day I got him to order everyone’s lunch in Mandarin at the deli near his school where we often go for smoothies (which he also orders). If we had a television that picked up digital signals, I would definitely be letting him and his brother watch the Taiwan Public Television show, Fruity Pie, a wacky-looking program that other parents at his school speak highly of. I have quizzed him, over dinner, about the vocabulary printed on his placemats, purchased as a fund-raiser for Jose Ortega Elementary School. I am pleased to say that judging by his lack of derision, my own Mandarin pronunciation must have improved somewhat.

He has written (minimally) in his Chinese journal that was sent home for the purpose, but I’m not good at pushing homework during the summer. Indeed, I worry that our relationship may would suffer irreparable damage without this all-important break in the nagging schedule! But I do strive for gentle encouragement.

I prefer the practical, real-world reinforcement of using a language as a means of practicing the language, thus the contrivance of getting smoothies but only if he orders them in Mandarin (and only because the deli worker can speak Mandarin!). When he learned about Chinese Chess, or Xiangqi, at school last year I agreed to buy a set for home if he could handle the transaction entirely in Chinese. He sailed through that one to the astonishment of the Chinatown shopkeeper. She asked me, in Mandarin, if I knew how to play. I answered with a dumb look, and she repeated the question in English.

“No,” I replied. “But he does.” (I learned later that this was a bit of a stretch.)

I probably get a little lazy because I know my son has already proven he has some facility with language. I am certain he will start school a little further behind in his Mandarin than he or I would like, but I am confident he’ll catch up pretty quickly. I do have some new school year resolutions such as obtaining more books in Chinese for our home and upping the Mandarin media quota for our sons. Next summer, I plan to try harder at getting them some practice (my preference would be for a few weeks abroad). And of course by then both of my children will have an incentive to speak Chinese to each other: their parents won’t know what they are saying!

Meanwhile, I’ll try to be gentle on both of us for letting his language practice lapse. It’s summer after all. He has gone to camp, taken swimming lessons, read a lot (in English…sigh, see my new-school-year resolution above), conducted science experiments and will visit his cousin and friends on a trip to Disneyland next week. We haven’t been wasting time. Maybe we’ll play lots of Chinese children’s songs in the car on our way to Southern California. There’s an idea!

I’m curious what others do to maintain their children’s language skills over the summer and how much teachers feel the students lose when they return from a summer of, more or less, English-only living.

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Ways of Speaking, Ways of Thinking

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

It has always seemed to me that once we start thinking in words, the shape of those words becomes the shape of our thoughts. More accurately, it is the language itself—how those words are put together and what they can convey—that shape our thinking. Following from this, it makes sense that different languages lend themselves more or less easily to different ways of thinking.

Stanford Psychologist Lera Boroditsky explores this very theory in a recent Wall Street Journal article, asserting that language itself influences culture. She backs up this theory with anecdotes from research, and her examples are fascinating.  What I find almost more interesting, however, is that many linguists have disregarded this theory, sometimes referred to as linguistic determinism, (though many believe that language’s effect on thought exists more on a continuum, which seems reasonable) for the last 40 or 50 years. None other than celebrated linguist Noam Chomsky asserts that all languages have a “universal grammar” and that each is, more or less, equal to the tasks for which human beings have created and used language. But decades of research, according to Boroditsky, have debunked this idea, and people are beginning to study, instead, just how language shapes the culture that creates it or, if you will, the culture it creates.

In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell compares the counting system of English to that shared by certain Asian languages including Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The Asian system is very regular and consistent: what we know in English as twelve translates literally into Mandarin as ten-two. Thirteen is “ten-three” and so on. Twenty-two is “two tens-two”—the value is inherent in the way the number is stated. When we say “twenty-two” in English our minds actually have to translate that word into the number value associated with it, and, although we soon come to do this with ease, our brains must still take an extra step to internalize the number value.

Is it any wonder that Asian children consistently outperform their peers in the U.S., France, Germany, England and other Western industrialized nations on mathematics exams? Of course one can argue that factors beyond language influence the scores, but the discrepancy, as reported in US News & World Report is so dramatic, and the language studies so compelling, it is hard to deny that the math engines built into these languages facilitate math learning to some extent.

Many of us have had the beautiful experience of learning an untranslatable word from a friend who speaks another language. Once we are able to get our heads around the concept signified by this foreign word—a concept our own language and culture has not formally recognized with language—we are thrilled. We haven’t simply learned a new word, we’ve learned something new and even somewhat mysterious (it can’t be translated after all) about the people who use that word.

My personal favorite, the Portuguese word saudade, can be described as something akin to the English word nostalgia, but without the gloppy sentimentality or, if I understand it right, quite the same flavor of melancholy. While saudade does convey longing for a past that can never return (as well as a future that will never happen or a present that is not turning out as one had hoped), acceptance of this reality is somehow built into the word. Saudade embodies all that is positive of a time or feeling that is no longer, while also deeply acknowledging the sadness of this truth. It can be found all over grave markers in Brazil, (and probably Portugal, too, but I’ve never walked through a Portuguese cemetery, so I don’t know). Brazilians even have an official day devoted to commemorating saudade (January 30). It’s hard to deny that this untranslatable word has an influence on the culture.

One day after school last spring, my son’s teacher sent him off with a string of Chinese that, by nature of the delivery, seemed important and meaningful.

“What did she say?” I asked my six-year-old.

“I can’t tell you” was his reply.

“You didn’t understand?”

“No, I understood, but I don’t know how to tell you.”

“Is it something you don’t want me to know about?” I pressed.

“No. It’s something good. I just don’t know how to say it in English.”

Perhaps as his abilities in both languages improve, once he learns more about nuance and increases his vocabulary, he can try to make me understand, just as my bilingual Brazilian friends have helped me with saudade. In the meantime, I will enjoy watching him learn how to speak–and to think–in more than one language.

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“Speaking in Tongues” Helps Save Successful Spanish Immersion Program

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Guest Blog
by Sara Shorin

When confusion and misinformation threatened the future of the highly successful Spanish immersion program my daughters attend in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, parents set out to share their own stories and provide accurate information about immersion education.  It was unimaginable to me that the program, which began in 1998 with a single Kindergarten class and has grown to serve children in two schools through 8th grade, might be terminated.

A budget crisis required the district to maximize staffing and facilities, stirring up emotion and vocal opposition among local critics of immersion education. The towns where the schools are located, Kings Beach and Tahoe City, are now 85% Latino and 99.9% White, respectively.  The school board realized it could save money by making Kings Beach all immersion and shifting the English mainstream program to Tahoe City. This would maximize district resources while also resulting in better integration, and therefore, better language outcomes among English- and Spanish-speaking  students in both programs. But loud and angry voices continued to suggest that the district consider dismantling the immersion program altogether.

I attended school board meetings as part of an effort to save the program and soon realized that many of the critics did not fully understand the immersion program goals, methods, and benefits.  Most of the opponents I spoke to did not know:

  • how a second language is acquired,
  • the overall benefit of becoming bilingual for both English and Spanish speakers,
  • that Spanish speakers learn English in the immersion program,
  • that it is not a remedial program for Spanish speakers and an enrichment program for English speakers,
  • that both English and Spanish speakers score higher on state tests than English mainstream students

I had long wanted to create an outreach program to explain immersion education to both English- and Spanish-speaking parents so that they could better understand their choices. Unexpectedly, this controversy launched what would become our Parent-to-Parent Immersion Outreach group. Immersion parents realized that we needed to enter the conversation to dispel the myths and misinformation that threatened to end this valuable program. Speaking in Tongues became the foundation for our outreach and enabled us to share information in a way that did not come across as defensive or self-serving.

First, we showed the film to immersion parents to solidify our message and formulate a plan for  sharing information that would include research articles, FAQs about our program, a film checkout from the school office (we purchased 6 copies), a Google group, a link to an immersion website from the main district site (still under construction), and program tours.

Next, we arranged a bilingual “Immersion Information Night” that included a public screening of Speaking In Tongues. We also introduced our teachers who led a PowerPoint presentation of  the program and translated for the attendees.   This was a great opportunity for parents and teachers to collaborate and reinforce how and why the program works.  Parents enjoyed having the opportunity to hear from other parents and ask specific questions of the teachers.   The successful evening (with 70 attending, including local media) provided immersion teachers and parents a forum to speak openly in a positive environment. With the film as a backdrop, we didn’t appear to be simply defending our own interests.

After the Info Night, we showed the film to a smaller, Spanish-speaking parent group with a translator so that we could explain how and why the program works for Spanish-speaking children.  A few immersion parents in this group helped reinforce the fact that immersion is not only an effective route to bilingualism for English-speaking children, but equally important to Spanish speakers and other English Language Learners (ELLs), who wish to become bilingual on an academic level. Maintaining native languages helps people stay connected to their heritage and families, yet many Spanish-speaking parents do not understand how their kids would learn English in a Spanish immersion program.  This lack of understanding often leads Spanish-speaking parents to opt for the English mainstream program because they believe, like many English and Spanish-speaking parents, that to learn English, children can only be in an English mainstream classroom. At the English mainstream program in Kings Beach, however, their children were surrounded by other ELLs and few, if any, native English-speaking peers until this year when the reconfiguration went into effect. Meanwhile, Spanish-speakers (and English-speakers) in the immersion program have consistently achieved at higher levels than their peers in the English mainstream on California state testing in both English Language Arts and Math.

Finally, we showed the film in a community center in Tahoe City, where many opponents live, hoping to reach the parents who were still reachable and wanted information.

Speaking in Tongues is the foundation of our outreach program, and I’ve been told that this outreach definitely had a positive impact. The film helped us educate all parents about immersion education, which has reduced the threat to our program.  A few of the former immersion opponents have even enrolled their children in the program, and some of the most vocal critics have softened their tone.  The film gave us focus and was the springboard that we needed in a time of anger, confusion, and misinformation.  It gave us an opportunity to start a friendly, informative conversation with all parents, creating an accurate understanding of the immersion program that would naturally lead to acceptance throughout the community.

In 2010, our first immersion students graduated from high school.  Many of them, including the valedictorian, were among the top 10 graduates.  Also in 2010, the district’s first Spanish-speaking ELL students enrolled in AP English.  I think these facts alone, as well as the testing data, reflect the quality of our program, but Speaking In Tongues will continue to be an important part of our Parent-to-Parent Immersion Outreach.  In time, we believe the community will understand the immersion model and come to accept it as simply another education choice and possibly the best one for many students.

Sara Shorin has an 8th grader who went through the Spanish Immersion program in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, and a 3rd grader currently in the program.  Since studying abroad in Germany and completing her senior thesis on bilingual education in the United States 25 years ago, Sara has remained interested in bilingual education and second language acquisition.  It is her goal to expose her children to as many languages as possible.

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How ‘Submersion’ Differs from Immersion

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

When English speaking children enter language immersion programs in this country they typically find that their teacher speaks to them in a language they don’t understand between 50% and 100% of the day. Immersion teachers use a variety of techniques, most notably exaggerated speaking styles and animated body language, to make themselves understood. About half of the class are native English speakers, and it’s not uncommon for students to hear English spoken in the halls by parents, other teachers, and school administrators. English-speaking immersion students know they are learning a second language at school and that their native language dominates everywhere else.

It is common to compare English speaking students’ experience in an immersion program to that of an immigrant thrust into an English-only classroom, but the comparison does not hold up. An immersion teacher’s job is to get the students to understand the language so that they can also teach the content—math, reading, social studies—as effectively as possible. Mainstream teachers were hired and trained to teach content in English, not to teach English as a second language. Whereas my kids’ teachers could make up their own language and effectively use it to teach math concepts, mainstream English teachers teach, by and large, from an assumption of fluency.

When most non-English-speaking immigrant children come to the US and enroll in school, they are simply placed in a mainstream English classroom, and English is spoken all day and everywhere. They may find common language peers in their same situation, and it’s likely those kids will stick together whenever possible rather than integrate with their English-speaking classmates. This type of instruction has been dubbed “submersion” because it is akin to pushing people into water without teaching them to swim.

Unfortunately, submersion instruction happens all over the world and is one of the main reasons heritage languages such as those spoken by Native Americans and minority tribes elsewhere are dying out altogether. Children may eventually become literate in the dominant language, but not in their mother tongue. In fact, depending on circumstances, they may lose their native language altogether, thereby losing ties with their family and culture and never having the benefit of full linguistic proficiency that comes with native fluency.

Of course many talented mainstream English teachers do their best to reach every student (and do so with success) regardless of their own formal training and experience, but even the most sensitive, well-intentioned teacher may fall into habits borne of teaching in an all-English environment. In a monolingual environment, for instance, there is nothing wrong with lecturing with one’s back to the class while writing on the whiteboard, but such practices cannot help ELLs get up to speed either in language or academic subjects. By the time these students get a handle on the dominant language, they are often so far behind in the content that achieving academic proficiency has become a formidable struggle.

Two-way immersion programs, when implemented properly, create bilingual students from distinct native language backgrounds. ELLs do not receive specialized or remedial instruction (unless it is otherwise indicated, in the case of learning disabilities, for example). Both English language instruction and content instruction in English are increased as the students progress, and the dominant language, English, is supported in commerce, the media, and in the community at large. Native English speakers enrolled in immersion do not suffer from a lack of guidance in the use of their mother tongue. Indeed, both ELLs and native English speakers tend to outpace their peers in monolingual programs before middle school.

When children of different language backgrounds are combined in classrooms led by effective, bilingual teachers, multilingual adults with greater cross-cultural understanding and deeper knowledge of most academic subjects are the end product, and these individuals can speak for themselves–in more than one language.

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Multilingualism Offers Benefits to the Brain that go Beyond the Obvious

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

While I personally espouse the obvious benefits of multilingualism, some people just don’t see the point in learning a second language. They have no plans to travel or work outside their home country, and they find memorizing vocabulary and working their way through foreign grammar a mind-numbing waste of time. They also feel that their kids can decide for themselves whether or not to pursue another language when they’re old enough. Some people are certain that even if they do learn to communicate in a second language, they will never use that skill. So why bother?

Well, it turns out that studying foreign languages is a lot like eating your vegetables: it’s good for you, even if you don’t like it (or won’t use it). And, also like the vegetables, the earlier you start, the more beneficial it is.

Researchers are making huge gains in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and one of the most exciting things they have learned is that, in addition to broadening horizons, increasing job opportunities, and the just plain cool factor of being able to communicate in more than one language, being multilingual offers tremendous benefits to the brain.

Speech and Language Pathologist Robert Kurtz lists the following seven cognitive advantages of bilingualism:

1. better metalinguistic awareness (ability to identify and describe characteristics and features of language);

2. better classification skills;

3. better concept formation;

4. better analogical reasoning;

5. better visual-spatial skills;

6. better storytelling skills;

7. better semantic development.

In a well-cited article for the ERIC Review , Kathleen M. Marcos discusses research suggesting that students who receive second language instruction are more creative and better at solving complex problems than those who do not (Bamford and Mizokawa, 1991). And in an era in which Americans have been shown to be declining in creativity, developing this type of intelligence is essential.

Other studies suggest that persons with full proficiency in more than one language (bilinguals) outperform similar monolingual persons on both verbal and nonverbal (math, critical thinking) tests of intelligence.  In another study, multilingual children of average intelligence learned to read in their native language earlier  than their monolingual peers.

It has long been observed that individuals proficient in a second language generally have an easier time learning subsequent languages.  While such individuals are often regarded as having a talent for languages (which, to some extent, may be the case), the truth is that learning more than one language establishes the brain circuitry for language acquisition, making it easier to learn third fourth and fifth languages as well.

The advantages can play out later in life, too.  For instance, multilingual stroke victims rarely lose ability in all of their languages because these languages are stored in different parts of the brain.  if a stroke hits the language center of a monolingual person, her entire ability to communicate is affected, whereas multilinguals may have damage to an area in which one of their languages is stored but not in another. And as if that weren’t enough, studies on multilingual Alzheimer’s patients indicate that multilingualism can delay the onset of symptoms by as much as five years!

Yet, despite all these benefits, as well as improved performance on standardized tests (even in non-verbal subject areas) and all the obvious advantages, language instruction continuously lands on the chopping block when school districts face tight budget decisions. Perhaps if more decision makers had become multilingual at an early age, enhanced brain function would enable them to recognize that such sacrifices are foolish at best.

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