Language immersion program to expand
Published: Monday, February 25, 2013
Updated: Monday, April 22, 2013 21:04
Just like students at surrounding schools, children at William C. Lewis Elementary School in Wilmington enter through school doors every morning prepared to learn standard subjects ranging from science to literature. Unlike most schools, however, subjects are taught in both Spanish and English as part of a statewide, dual language program set to expand this fall.
Children spend half of the time learning in Spanish and the other half learning in English, Principal Ariadna Castañeda said, as Lewis Elementary, and two other elementary schools in Delaware have become part of Gov. Jack Markell’s World Language Immersion Program. The program, set to be introduced in seven new schools next fall, features a curriculum that has children across the state learning either Mandarin Chinese or Spanish, from early on in their academic careers.
“The ability to speak another language is a life skill that is becoming crucial in the global job marketplace and to our growing state economy,” Markell stated in a press release earlier this month.
This program is an “incredible opportunity” for students in the state to learn another language before reaching high school, a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives, the press release stated.
Mervin Daugherty, superintendent of Red Clay Consolidated School District, said the World Language Immersion Program, implemented earlier this year, has been successful so far and will continue to expand. Approximately 150 kindergarteners and first graders are enrolled in the program at Lewis Elementary, a number he said that will increase annually.
“We need to catch up by being multicultural in our languages and not just in our population,” Daugherty said.
As a dual-language magnet school, Lewis Elementary allows parents living within the school’s district to choice their children in, Castañeda said, meaning children who meet the criteria of the school are granted admission. If they do choose Lewis, a school with a body made up of both native English and Spanish speakers, all students are exposed to the same curriculum, and instead of going to foreign language classes, students are taught common subjects such as math in both languages on alternating days, she said.
Additionally, the staff includes both native English speakers as well as native Spanish speakers which “truly boosts multiculturalism,” according to Castañeda. This two-way immersion program is effective because it emphasizes language acquisition in context, she said.
“When you’re at the high school level, you’re processing and thinking more about it,” Castañeda said. “You have more inhibitions in high school. When you’re a child, you repeat it and don’t worry how it sounds. Children mold very easily––they’re like sponges.”
And the earlier children learn a language, the better, according to university foreign language professor Jorge Cubillos. Because children are wired to learn language, he said it’s important to start teaching children foreign languages during the “critical period” before puberty.
Children have an innate ability to pick up multiple languages and achieve native proficiency, he said, but once a child reaches this “critical period,” language begins to be processed in conceptual and intellectual ways. It is after this time that language becomes harder to grasp, Cubillos said.
“Every study conducted in the past 30 years shows an early start leads to mastering a language,” Cubillos said.
As a child born in Venezuela, senior Rafael Caballero said he began studying English at the age of 12. At his school, he said he spent two hours a day for six years studying English. From his experience, he said age makes a huge difference when learning a foreign language.
Because of the political and economic situations existing in Venezuela, Caballero said learning English was essential. Often in Venezuela, he said families do not want to compromise their children’s future, so they have them learn another language that may prove useful. For Caballero, that language was English.
“My parents told me if something happened in Venezuela because of the political system, they would want me to have a different option,” Caballero said.
But the United States does not have the same political disadvantage as Venezuela and consequently, foreign language is not as emphasized in this country, he said.
Though language study is often included in the curriculums of schools around the nation, Cubillos said tactics used to teach languages in the past 30 to 40 years are ineffective because they approach language acquisition in the wrong way. Intellectual approaches to teaching languages are often futile, he said, because learning a language is a lifelong process that requires practice, effort and exposure—a process that essentially cannot be accomplished in one or two semesters, he said.
“Memorization and worksheets have their place in classrooms, but they shouldn’t be considered the primary source to language acquisition,” he said.
The best way to learn a foreign language is through extensive exposure over a long period of time, Cubillos said. To increase foreign language proficiency among students, he said the curriculum needs to be adjusted, especially to fit the demands of living in a multicultural and interconnected world.
“Graduates will be interacting with people of many different backgrounds,” he said. “There will be a clear disadvantages if you aren’t exposed.”
Historically, the United States has not been in the position to speak second languages with other people, Cubillos said. Unlike European countries that border countries with various languages and ethnicities, the United States is isolated, he said, but with increased globalization, being proficient in multiple languages has become a necessity.