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.