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Language Immersion Prepares Our Students for Global Competition

March 24, 2011 By Valerie Ong, Education Fellow

Our globalized economy is actually a small world in which to compete. With Minnesota’s 21 Fortune 500 companies, key food production firms and growing bio-medical industry, our students must be globally attuned and trained to thrive.

Acquiring a foreign language through immersion education is a critical training component in making our students global citizens.

While educators and business leaders have put a fresh focus on language immersion education, it’s been part of Minnesota’s education system nearly 35 years.

Wilder Elementary in Minneapolis opened as a partial Spanish immersion program for English-speaking children in 1976, making it the state’s first. The concept has steadily grown to 56 immersion education programs as of fall 2010.

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) describes the core characteristics of immersion education as:

• Additive bilingualism with sustained and enriched instruction through the minority language (immersion language) and the majority language (English) is promoted
• Subject area instruction through the minority language occurs for at least 50 percent of the school day during the elementary school years
• Teachers are fully proficient in the language(s) they use for instruction
• Support for the majority language is strong and present in the community at large
• Clear and sustained separation of languages during instructional time

There are three models of immersion education in Minnesota schools today. The first is foreign language immersion which is used most widely at 75 percent, as of fall 2010. Students are typically English speakers (or more formally, they speak the majority language) with limited or no proficiency in the minority language (the foreign language they’re studying).

The second model is dual language immersion. The student population consists of both language majority and language minority speakers who learn from each other in addition to formal teaching.

The third model is known as indigenous immersion. It aims to revitalize Native language and culture and primarily serves Native American students.

According to CARLA, 87 percent of the immersion programs are full time and follow a 90:10 metric. Students use the foreign language 90 percent of the time and students use English just 10 percent of the time for specialist classes like music and technology or English language development focusing on oral and word language. Regardless, immersion classrooms are held to the same Minnesota state standards as non-immersion schools.

Immersion education focuses primarily (61 percent) on the elementary level. Thirty-nine percent of the elementary level programs are for the “whole school” while 61 percent are “strands” or programs housed by a non-immersion education school.

Immersion education produces several positive outcomes aside from better foreign language acquisition.American Council on Immersion Education (ACIE) research shows that immersion students do well in English-only classrooms and do better than their monolingual counterparts on standardized English language proficiency measurements.

CARLA’s immersion program coordinator, Tara Fortune, notes that while there may be a delay in achievement for some students in the third grade, this is only temporary, with rebounds by fifth grade.

Fortune’s research compares immersion student achievement to non-immersion student achievement among peers (same age, same grade, and same demographics). Therefore, immersion student performance is described as "the same or better than" their peers in non-immersion. Language minority students (those learning English) in 90:10 two-way immersion may need until the sixth through eighth grade before they demonstrate grade-level achievement on standardized tests given in English, explains Fortune.

Also, the longer a student is in foreign language immersion, the greater the chance that student has of performing better in both English language arts and other content areas than a non-immersion counterpart.

St. Cloud Area Schools research and other studies point to cognitive brain development, development of greater listening and thinking skills, and an increased awareness and appreciation of other cultures as positive immersion education outcomes.

For some parents, the elementary school start presents a real advantage to enrolling their children in an immersion program. “Children are able to ‘pick up’ languages, so I thought we shouldn't waste the window of opportunity that a person only has when [he is a] pre-teen,” said one mother whose son attends Windom Dual Spanish Immersion in Minneapolis.

Minnesota educators had the forethought more than a generation ago to bring immersion to our schools. While it continues to grow here, there is still not enough state support and recognition to capitalize on our great start. As we invest in elementary immersion education, we must also continue to invest in post-elementary programs to sustain and improve language proficiency.

Immersion is a practical and worthwhile state investment Minnesota should be making. Fortune, the U of M researcher, notes that immersion programs only require additional funding (over traditional schools) for starting up, but not for running the programs over time.

Producing global citizens will help Minnesota and its corporations produce prosperity in a global economy. We already have tools in place to make this a reality. Failing to achieve such a crucial long-term policy goal would be a wasted investment.

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