Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

The Elephant in the Classroom: English Language Development in an Immersion Setting

Friday, September 17th, 2010

One of the most common criticisms of immersion education in the U.S. is that it prioritizes second-language acquisition above English-language development.  While studies have shown that being bilingual actually improves one’s understanding of his native language, it is true that children being taught in a language immersion school do experience some lag in English language proficiency as compared to their English-only peers in the early years of school.  Most English-speaking parents who opt to put their kids in immersion programs understand and accept this, but when test scores start to roll in that are lower than hoped for, or as English instruction time–with non-native English speakers–increases as kids get older, English-speaking parents start scratching their heads.  Moreover, when parents already speak the target language but either speak no English or speak English as a second language, getting adequate English instruction for their kids becomes a bigger issue.

My older son entered kindergarten reading English fluently, and I didn’t worry about the kind of English instruction he was getting at school that first year.  Kindergarten, while more academic than it used to be, is still a place where kids are getting used to school. He was having fun and learning–especially Chinese!  I was just so glad that he was in an immersion environment so that he wasn’t bored all day being taught to do things he had already mastered.  First grade was harder to get through as the English Language Arts curriculum is still very much focused on early literacy skills.  I tried to work with his teachers, native Chinese speakers, about varying his English assignments so that he will be more challenged and engaged, but despite acknowledging my son’s advanced reading skills, they haven’t seemed very comfortable experimenting with the curriculum.

Now we are working through year three, and the English portion of the day is twice as long as it had been in kindergarten and first grade.  My son is still ahead of most of his peers, though the gap is certainly narrowing as other students develop their literacy skills.  I have never felt that the excellent Chinese teachers at my sons’ school lack the basic ability to teach English Language Arts at the elementary level, but it now occurs to me that being charged with helping to develop native literacy in children in one’s second language is a daunting task.  It is no wonder the teachers stick closely to the curriculum: getting creative could mean making mistakes and teaching those to the kids.  This is not a risk such truly professional teachers would be willing to make.  I am frustrated that my child is not getting the level of challenge he needs in English–and I continue to work with the teachers and administration on alternatives–but I am heartened by how well he is learning Chinese and remain thrilled that he has this opportunity.  The fact remains that while he may be bored during English at school, his father and I can help supplement this part of his education at home.

But what if we couldn’t?  The Mandarin immersion program at my kids’ school is now in its fifth year.  It started as an underenrolled program in 2006, and has steadily grown to the point that it now has a waiting list.  The vast majority of students in the first three years of the program were native English speakers with highly educated parents who understood the concept of immersion and the value of bilingualism.  With the success of the program and the  increased interest in Chinese over the last few years, the program has grown significantly.  More children from Chinese-speaking families are attending school with my younger son (who just entered kindergarten), and several kids in his class attended a local Mandarin-immersion preschool that did not exist a few years ago.  Native Chinese-speaking parents have expressed concern that, while their children will be getting an excellent Mandarin education, they might not get all they need in terms of English-language instruction.  And, unlike me, they are less confident about their own abilities to supplement English instruction outside of school.

And then there is the matter of standardized testing.  In second grade, the students’ English teacher reads the test questions for the California STAR test aloud to the students, and there is no written copy available to the students to read on their own.  Most immersion students in San Francisco, whether in Spanish, Korean, or Chinese, have an English teacher for whom English is a second language–a language that is sometimes spoken with a fairly heavy accent.  Could this affect the children’s performance on the tests?  It’s a valid question.  Moreover, kids for whom English is a second language are given the test in English, leading to scores that reflect their ability to understand English regardless of the subject mater being tested.  The fairness of this is continually called into question, and there is even legislation to offer English language learners the opportunity to test in their native language currently sitting on the (non-native English-speaking) governor’s desk.

Whether or not children receive their English instruction from a native speaker, research shows that immersion students not only catch up with their peers on standardized tests by fourth or fifth grade, they usually leap ahead of them (even in math) where standardized tests are concerned.  I have always explained away the minor errors in my sons’ teachers’ written English by letting my kids know that such mistakes are very common for people who didn’t learn their second language until they were much older.  “You are lucky,” I tell them, “to be learning Chinese when you are so young, because you will probably make fewer mistakes in Chinese when you grow up.”

I remain extraordinarily happy about my kids’ language immersion education.  I’d actually be more pleased if they could go to school 100% in Chinese and their English instruction were left entirely up to us, but I make this statement from a personal perspective.  I understand the importance of teaching English to all kids in the public schools, and I’m wondering what we could do in immersion programs to make the English teaching more effective for all the kids while still supporting our wonderful native-speaker teachers.  Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below.

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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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