It's overwhelming enough just trying to choose the right school for your kindergartener, let alone deciding whether she should spend 90 percent of her time being taught standard subjects—like math and science—in a foreign language.
In recent years the U.S. has seen the popularity of language immersion programs take off. Often, these programs are so competitive parents must camp out overnight or win the lottery system just to try to snag a place for their child.
In a typical English/Spanish immersion program, kindergarteners and first graders might be taught in Spanish up to 90 percent of the time, and learning to read and write in Spanish first. Over time, the percentages gradually evens out and by 6th grade, kids are taught equally in both English and Spanish, and are proficient in both languages.
Selecting a language immersion program is a big decision—and one that family and friends might not always understand or support. Do your homework in advance to be sure the choice you make is right for your family.
- What are the biggest benefits of a language immersion program? Olga West, Principal of Veterans Elementary School in Chula Vista, California—which offers a dual immersion program for students in K through 6th grade—says that students learn the language easily and more readily than waiting until high school or college. Immersion kids become proficient in reading, writing, speaking, and listening in Spanish as well as English, and can use these skills for specialized programs in school, in the community, and later, in their careers.
- Do kids in the program experience any delay in their English skills? Although your child might not first learn to read and write in English, students tend to reach grade level in second or third grade without intensive English instruction. By the upper grades, students enrolled in dual immersion programs are at grade level for all subjects in both languages. Additionally, older students often outperform native English speakers who are not in the program on standardized English tests.
- Will my child get frustrated when she doesn't understand? West says some children may find the early days frustrating, however most adapt easily and quickly understand routines and directions. But don't worry—language immersion teachers are used to working with kids who don't know the language, and will give visual clues and physical prompts to get their meaning across.
- How will I help with homework? If you only speak English, you might wonder how you'll help your child figure out her sums when her math class is taught in Spanish. But Tara Fortune, PhD, Immersion Project Coordinator for the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota says the most important thing for parents to do is provide meaningful English support. That means reading to your kid in English every day—ideally about topics your child is studying in school—and talking with your child about the subjects. If she's studying measurement, cook with her and talk about measurement concepts in English as you work.
- Will my kid forget the second language if she doesn't continue classes after elementary school? With limited opportunities to use her second language, your kid will have a slight regression, says Fortune. However, her skills and knowledge remain as a base for when she picks back up with classes, and she'll have an easier time learning other languages in the future.
- Do you need to stick with the program once you start? Both Fortune and West are equally emphatic—an immersion program is a long-term commitment. West asks prospective parents to consider their family and career circumstances before accepting a place in the program. If you know you'll be moving in a couple of years, immersion might not be the right choice. Although your kid will be at grade level in Spanish, she won't have the same level of English reading and writing as a child in the English-only program—yet. But if you're staying put for at least the next four or five years, then you can consider the program, because by then your kid will be on track in both languages!
- Do I need to start my child in Spanish lessons before kindergarten? No. Students don't need any earlier experience—and neither do their parents—to be successful.
West says that parents need to remember that starting school is an adjustment, and an immersion program is also an adjustment. Expect your new kindergartener to be tired. She might cry, or even have times when she doesn't want to go to school.
West advises parents to be supportive and encouraging. Prepare your child and tell her that she's entering a class where she'll learn Spanish. Stay positive—it'll be an adventure! Talk regularly with her teachers, attend meetings and seek support and guidance from other parents in the program. The initial adjustment period should be temporary, and soon your child will learn to love both of her languages.