Language Immersion: The Bilingual Super-Highway

asianave April 9, 2015 Comments Off on Language Immersion: The Bilingual Super-Highway

Colorado’s language immersion programs help put k-8 students on the fast track to becoming bilingual and culturally aware.

By Sarah Shirazi | Asian Avenue magazine

Language Immersion

It’s a little ironic that I have found myself sitting in a classroom of first graders, the back of which has been decorated in pink flower lanterns, red paper dragons, and bookshelves stocked with Mandarin Chinese books in a variety of subject areas. The teacher stands at the front of the room and writes characters on the white board that I don’t understand. Loudly, she recites words and sentences and the students repeat after her in what I’m told is almost a perfect pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese. After a while, the teacher stops and asks students to write as she walks around the classroom calling on them individually.

The irony of this scene is that we’re in Denver at the International School of Denver – not in China – and majority of the students are Caucasian – not Asian.

So there I was I sitting at the back of the classroom in complete awe. I had been there for almost an hour and not a word of English had been spoken. For a moment I dozed off and remembered when I was in elementary school throwing huge fits almost every time my parents took me to language class after school. I also remember that my fits evolved into complaining and eventually the complaining ceased when I forgot why I was complaining and started learning.

By middle school most American students are introduced to a foreign language. This involves studying a foreign language one period a few times a week, but when foreign language is no longer a requirement, most students forget everything. At this point “[it] is far too late” explains Bénédicte Brouder, assistant head of school at the International School of Denver. An avid proponent of bilingual education, Brouder has dedicated her life to working for language immersion programs.

“Language immersion programs are more than learning a language; it’s about teaching the core subjects like math, language arts, science. It helps them establish a connection to the language and makes students reinforce the subject matter by being able to learn it in two or more languages,” says Brouder.

It’s a concept that foreign language experts stand by. According to Asia Society, the leading educational organization, “English-proficient immersion students are capable of achieving as well as, and in some cases better than, non-immersion peers on standardized measures of reading and math.”

Language immersion programs started becoming popular in the United States in the 1980s. The first modern language immersion programs were started in Canada in the 1960s, where students were immersed in French and English. Language immersion classes can now be found throughout the United States, in urban and suburban areas, in dual-immersion and single language immersion, and in an array of languages; the most popular being Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese.

A more recent push for increasing language immersion programs started in 2006 when the federal government realized that there are not enough Americans who can speak languages like Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu. Under former President Bush’s administration, the STARTALK program was started to provide more resources to students and teachers towards increasing language proficiency in these lesser known languages.

While initiatives like STARTALK are needed to support the goal of increasing language proficiency in lesser-known languages nationwide, it all seems to start with parents. After all, I doubt Saison, an adorable first grader studying Mandarin at Colorado International School knows much about the impact his bilingual education will have on his life at this point. His parents, on the other hand, understand that by enrolling Saison in a language immersion program, he is becoming better prepared to compete for 21st century jobs.

“My dad wants someone in the family to be fluent in Mandarin so we can visit China as a family one day,” said a fifth grader at International. “I decided that I would do it. Studying Mandarin is cool, I love it!”

More than 60 schools in Colorado are offering Mandarin classes to help students get a foundation in international business. With a growing number of families adopting Chinese children, parents want to help their children learn their native language. It also helps to speak Mandarin when competing for positions with international businesses.

Nationally, there are 190 language immersion schools that teach Mandarin Chinese, eight of which are in Colorado, including International School of Denver, Colorado International school, (both private schools), Denver Language School, a one-of-a-kind charter school of the Denver Public School system, and Global Academy, a charter school collaborative with five locations across Colorado.

Studies show that the younger you start, the better. Young language learners can acquire native-like fluency compared to adult learners.


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