School & District Management

Elementary Pupils Immersed in Foreign Language

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim — November 30, 2012 8 min read
While speaking only in Mandarin, teacher Li Jing Jing shows her kindergartners at J. Ralph McIlvaine Early Childhood Center in Delaware how to fold a paper turkey. Half the day the children are taught in Chinese and half the day in English.
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When it comes to lessons in other tongues, Kevin Fitzgerald, the superintendent of the Caesar Rodney school district in northeastern Delaware, is never at a loss for words.

He speaks with pride about the fact that his district’s high school, Caesar Rodney High School, offers six foreign languages: French, Spanish, German, Latin, and, more recently, Arabic and Mandarin.

This school year, the district introduced a more novel and potentially more effective foreign-language initiative to talk up: a new Chinese-immersion program for 101 kindergartners, which the district plans to offer those children and successive kindergartners through 8th grade.

The immersion program, which provides instruction in math, science, and literacy in Chinese for half a day and in English for the remainder, is one of three such programs funded though Gov. Jack Markell’s recently created World Language Expansion Initiative. The initiative operates with $1.9 million annually from Delaware’s state budget.

At a time when school districts face constant budgetary constraints while also being charged with preparing students for jobs in a more global economy, proponents of foreign-language instruction say Delaware’s new immersion program represents an uncommon but welcome step toward introducing foreign language at an age that researchers say is optimal for students to become multilingual.

“We’d like to think it will become more common,” said William P. Rivers, the executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages-National Council for Language and International Studies, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for languages and international education.

McIlvaine kindergarten pupil Emily Hood wears a “good behavior” sticker that says “reward” in Chinese.

In-Depth Doses

Foreign-language instruction at the elementary level has been around for decades. Funding from the U.S. Department of State, whose goal was to bolster national security and the economy, served as a catalyst for some of that instruction. Delaware, in fact, is one of the states that has received the federal funding. But Mr. Rivers and others hail Delaware’s initiative and a similar one in Utah as being at the cutting edge of states trying to bring more in-depth instruction.

Lynn Fulton-Archer, the education specialist for the immersion program at the Delaware education department, said the initiatives in her state and Utah differ from previous ones at the elementary level in part because the earlier programs were “isolated” and “low intensity.” In those programs, students spend between 30 and 150 minutes a week learning another language, she said, while students in Delaware and Utah get at least 150 minutes of language learning a day.

What’s more, Ms. Fulton-Archer said, the teacher is not an add-on, but, instead, a regular grade-level teacher who teaches both the language and core content.

Utah’s program involves immersion in Chinese, French, Spanish, and Portuguese beginning mostly in 1st grade and university-level coursework in high school. The state plans to establish 100 dual-language programs reaching 30,000 students by 2014.

Since its formal launch this fall at the Caesar Rodney district’s J. Ralph McIlvaine Early Childhood Center in Magnolia, Del., which serves families from nearby Dover Air Force Base, the foreign language program has become the talk of the town, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

“In our community, I run into parents all the time, and there’s a great likelihood that the conversation is going to turn to our immersion program,” he said.

Sherry Kijowski, the principal at McIlvaine, says student excitement over learning Mandarin is evident from the way immersion students interact with one another.

“When they ask each other to pass crayons, they (use) Chinese words for colors,” she said.

A primary benefit of the Delaware initiative is that unlike most foreign-language programs in U.S. schools, it introduces students to a foreign language at an age when researchers say their brains are most receptive to picking it up and enabling them to speak the language fluently with little or no hint of a foreign accent.

“Early age is the best time to be introduced to a foreign language because the mind/brain is most plastic at that age in terms of its ability to learn a language,” Hendrik J. Haarmann, the area director of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language, said in an email.

The cognitive benefits of doing so, Mr. Haarmann says, are multifaceted and long term. For instance, he said, children who have “grown up bilingual” tend to have better memories and stronger protection against certain natural declines in cognitive functions later in life.

Ms. Fulton-Archer, the education specialist for the World Language Immersion program at the Delaware education department, said more than four decades of research has shown the power of immersion education to help students attain high levels of world-language proficiency.

“No other type of instruction, short of living in a non-English-speaking environment, is as successful,” she said.

Deja Parker, a kindergartner in An Wei’s Chinese language immersion class, pushes an item into her cubby at J. Ralph McIlvaine Early Childhood Center in Delaware. Chinese slogans and pupil artwork decorate the classroom.

On the Decline

Despite the benefits associated with introducing a foreign language to young children, teaching it at the elementary level remains relatively uncommon in the United States.

While 91 percent of high schools offer a foreign language, the proportion of elementary schools that do decreased from 31 percent in 1997 to 25 percent in 2008, according to the most recent national survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics, and from 75 percent to 58 percent at the middle school level. The center conducts the survey once every decade.

The 2008 survey says there “continues to be reason for serious concern about the limited number of long‐sequence K-12 language programs designed to provide students with the linguistic and cultural skills needed to communicate effectively in the United States and abroad.” It also says that a large number of elementary and middle school students, especially in rural or low-socioeconomic-status schools, do not have the opportunity to study foreign language at all.

“We’ve just fallen so far behind other countries in terms of preparing our students for the world in which they’re going to have to live and work,” said Martha G. Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, or ACTFL, based in Alexandria, Va.

Nationally, immersion programs—not to be confused with individual foreign-language classes—have grown from only a handful in the 1970s to nearly 450 in 2011, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.

As of August, there were 415 two-way bilingual-immersion programs in 31 states, plus the District of Columbia, according to an online directory created by the center, which says the directory is not necessarily exhaustive.

The vast majority, 391, of those programs involve Spanish. Nearly half were in California and Texas.

Resource Challenges

Superintendent Fitzgerald says it wasn’t because of lack of awareness about the benefits of studying foreign language early that his Delaware district didn’t introduce it until now.

“Plain and simple, either we didn’t have the resources or we couldn’t find the teachers,” he said.

Lack of resources for foreign-language instruction is also a challenge at the national level, even as government leaders trumpet the need for American students to gain foreign-language skills so they can fill crucial voids in realms that range from national security to international trade.

Mr. Rivers of the Joint National Committee laments the recent decision at the federal level not to fund the State Department’s Foreign Language Assistance Program, known as FLAP, in fiscal 2012. Until then, FLAP was the only federally financed program that exclusively targeted foreign-language instruction in K-12. The previous fiscal year it had been funded at $26.9 million. The Obama administration has repeatedly, as part of the budget request, proposed the creation of a competitive program, Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education, that would finance education in a variety of areas, including foreign languages and other subjects.

Before he moved on this year to a university presidency in California, Eduardo Ochoa, then-assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, testified before a Senate panel that foreign-language instruction should not be seen as an “add on” in K-12 or higher education and should take place early in a child’s experience. Such programs, he said, help develop skills that will prepare students, and the nation itself, for “economic competitiveness and jobs, collaboration to address global challenges, national security and diplomacy, and effective engagement in a diverse U.S. society.”

Gov. Markell had similar things in mind when he launched the World Language Expansion Initiative in Delaware.

Advanced by High School

The initiative, which involves two Spanish programs in addition to Chinese, seeks to reach nearly 8,000 Delaware students at the K-8 level by 2020.

“We developed the initiative because we recognize that as global employers choose where to locate jobs, they are better served hiring where their employees have the skills to communicate across markets. That means fluency in two or three languages, not one,” the governor, a Democrat, said during a visit to the McIlvaine Early Childhood Center.

In addition to those benefits, he said, “language study improves academic performance, builds sociocultural awareness, and enhances cognitive abilities.”

By the 9th grade, Mr. Markell said he expected every student in the program to be able to pass Advanced Placement Chinese or Spanish.

For now, the program is reaching some 340 pupils, including the 101 at McIlvaine.

Superintendent Fitzgerald said one measure of the program will be the extent to which parents keep their children in it. Another, he said, will be how well immersion students perform on standardized tests.

Mr. Fitzgerald would like to see foreign language become an even more prominent part of K-12 education and says he believes it will if his district demonstrates success.

“I can foresee in the future where all of our kindergartners are involved in some sort of immersion program,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “It would be wonderful if we had the funds and the ability to provide each student with another language and help guide them through their education career.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2012 edition of Education Week as Elementary Pupils Immersed in Foreign Languages


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