Decades of research consistently find strong benefits for most learners in pre-K through grade 8 who participate in an immersion, dual-language or two-way language program. In a good program, “You’re not just teaching a language,” says Kathy Kotchick, head of the French International School of Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd, PA. “You’re teaching through language.”
Cognitive boosts for bilingual students
Babies and young children typically acquire the language of their surroundings naturally and efficiently. When that groundwork becomes the foundation for acquiring a second language during the primary school years, the student generally becomes more proficient in the second and subsequent languages than older language learners do.
Although most experts expect that children may experience a brief temporary lag in developing new languages, testing shows that if students continue to develop their heritage language along with the new language, they get stronger in their first language as well. “The process solidifies their mother tongue,” asserts Kotchick.
Studies suggest that bilingual brains differ from those of students who don’t become proficient in another language. Bilingual students have stronger attention control, multi-tasking skills and executive-order functions. Bilingual adults delay dementia as much as 4-5 years later than speakers of only one language. Researchers have also found differences between bilingual and monolingual brains in responses to strokes and rehabilitation from strokes, says Kristin Epstein, executive director of YingHua International School near Princeton, NJ. Immersion research also provides examples of better problem-solving skills and cognitive flexibility among bilingual learners compared to monolingual peers. “They’re more creative problem solvers,” says Epstein. “They understand and know in a different way.”
Learning outcomes for language-immersion students
Two-way immersion programs also benefit many minority speakers and children with some disabilities, according to Cora Scott, director of elementary education for Claymont Elementary School in Claymont, DE. “They’re flourishing,” she says.
She points to the multiple strategies used by immersion teachers throughout the day to engage and support different kinds of learners. Use of visuals, songs, gestures, kinesthetic and tactile methods to cue and communicate are best teaching practices that offer learners additional ways to connect with new learning and then apply it elsewhere.
In addition, learning increasingly challenging content through both languages gives all students greater sophistication in contexts, cues and concepts.
Scott emphasizes that state assessment data show that immersion students perform as well as or better than peers who haven’t been immersed in a second language. The immersion students frequently gain college credits through AP exams in 9th grade and often pursue a third language in high school or enroll in dual-credit classes at local colleges.
Social & economic benefits of language-immersion programs
A desire to enhance the domestic economy in part motivates Delaware’s immersion initiatives in its public schools. According to the Delaware Department of Education’s website, language immersion is considered among the least costly means to strengthen the state’s job force and help make Delaware a global commercial player.
Career options open to students who have fluid linguistic and multicultural capabilities. Delaware’s DOE recognizes that the ability “to communicate in Mandarin Chinese or in Spanish will be an invaluable economic advantage.”
Improved cultural sensitivity also results in more than a mere nod to diversity. Epstein explains, for example, that the Chinese approach to handling fractions differs from the Western approach. Exposure to different thought processes broadens one’s mind and increases access to fresh ways of thinking about the world and its problems.
Kotchick emphasizes the deeper understanding a student gains through the lens of additional languages. The diminished preconceptions about the world that accompany immersion education enhance a student’s toolbox “to conquer challenges.” Students discover, adds Epstein, “There are many ways to be right.”
Research clearly documents the potential benefits of bilingual education, but students must apply themselves to reap these rewards. Ongoing support in each student’s heritage language improves her chances for success.
Ann L. Rappoport is a contributing writer to MetroKids.