All educators know that communication is key for students if they’re going to succeed in work and life. But how much more of a master key would students hold if they all knew more than one language and had the tools to understand other cultures and countries outside of their own?
I am the principal of Elon Elementary School, a public school in Elon, N.C., where many English-speaking students, including my son, are in a Spanish-language immersion program. One day, we encountered an anxious parent who spoke to me in Spanish. I asked my son, who knows much more Spanish than I do, to translate.
“Daddy,” he said, “I can’t translate.”
“Can you ask him what he needs help with and tell me?”
“Oh, yeah, I can do that,” my son replied. At 7 years old, he listened, figured out that the man was looking for a school event, and told him he had arrived one day early. The man gestured to my son and said, “Whoa, muy bueno! You papa?” I nodded yes with a proud smile.
Only one in five K-12 students in the United States studies a foreign language, according to a 2017 study by the American Councils for International Education. And though teaching a foreign language is required in 11 states, no more than 11 percent of all foreign-language programs employ the kind of immersion that produces fluent graduates.
These are troubling statistics. Not only is foreign language highly prized when conducting business, defending our country, and competing for jobs, research has also shown that foreign-language study increases cross-cultural understanding. Schools need to do better.
A Classroom Model
I have seen firsthand what happens when schools prioritize foreign language and supplement that learning with cross-cultural studies. A decade ago, our school committed to a Spanish-immersion program. Approximately 20 percent of our students start learning the mechanics and foundations of the language in kindergarten with a native Spanish-speaking teacher. In kindergarten and 1st grade, all instruction for those students is entirely in Spanish; by 2nd grade, students receive 80 percent of instruction, including reading, math, and science, in Spanish through 5th grade.
For the whole school, a different kind of immersion comes in the form of an emphasis on global competency. We depend on a for-profit company called Participate to provide professional development, technology, and consulting on global competence for teachers. The group also assists in recruiting international teachers from places like Australia, Jamaica, and England. We currently have 11 international teachers on staff, and whenever we have a teacher vacancy, we simply expand the candidate pool. International teachers are with us for a set time, then return to their home country.
Though every school may not be able to provide full immersion in the same way, my experiences provides several takeaways on why directly exposing students to new language and culture is a worthwhile effort:
1. Learning a foreign language at an early age has academic benefits.
With each year of learning, students not only gain a deeper understanding of a language, but also develop proficiency in unrelated subjects. When students have to constantly translate between languages, their brains are more attuned to interpreting what they read, write, and hear.
In our school, after the 2015-16 school year, we compared end-of-grade test data in reading and math for all 3rd grade Spanish immersion classes with the averages of their non-dual-language peer groups in the school district. The results showed that 74.9 percent of immersion students (who are admitted to the program based on their interest) were proficient in reading and 76 percent were proficient in math, while only 57 percent of their peers were proficient in reading and 55 percent in math.
2. Language immersion goes beyond academics.
A language-immersion program can allow the student body to increase their methods of communication and form deeper friendships with one another. Though our immersion students have separate instruction, all students—some of whom are native Spanish speakers—interact at lunch, recess, and in after-school programs. Both groups seem to have a stronger sense of belonging and fitting in. Teachers who work with Spanish-immersion students also report an increased level of acceptance of differences. When students encounter classmates’ rituals or views that are unfamiliar to them, they’ll ask, “Is that a tradition in your family?” rather than assuming the unfamiliarity is strange or wrong.
3. A global lens allows students (and teachers) to reimagine the world.
Early in my own career, when I taught 4th grade, I was surprised at how many students thought the world began and ended at our state borders. That’s why increasing interactions between students and teachers of many backgrounds and nationalities is so important. The influence of international teachers helps other staff gain insights on education strategies in other parts of the world that they might not have considered. Students, meanwhile, have daily opportunities to compare and contrast learning, cultures, and traditions from other countries to those of their own, helping them cultivate deeper understanding, borne out of direct relationships, that they could never get from a book or video.
In some cases, teachers share artifacts and stories from their own lives or use Skype and Google Hangouts to connect with classrooms in other countries. These strategies relate everyday lessons in math, science, and reading to what’s happening abroad. When one of our classes was learning about law enforcement, the students Skyped with a constable in Australia to compare roles and responsibilities to police officers in the United States.
A Wider World
Teachers who want to promote global experiences in the classroom can find resources through the Flat Classroom Project, which offers online courses for global teaching, and TakingITGlobal, which promotes cross-cultural understanding through the arts. Professional-development courses from university programs, such as World View at the University of North Carolina and the global-competence certificate developed by Teachers College, can help teachers become experts in global education practices.
Embracing global immersion through language and education might sound like an extra thing to do, but it’s a lens that not only broadens students’ classroom experiences, it also reminds students just how big and diverse the world beyond school walls really is.