I have a friend whose 8-year-old son is on his way to becoming tri-lingual: speaking English, while taking Spanish in school and Mandarin through an online course offered by Johns Hopkins. “Between those three languages he’ll be able to speak to about 92 percent of the world,” my friend said, laughing, but not really joking.
In my anecdotal experience, learning a second (or third) language is a hot topic among parents considering what kinds of enrichment classes to steer their young children to—not to mention what school over all to send them to. A new high-profile private school, Avenues, kind of threw the gauntlet down by making bilingual immersion a key selling point in how their educational program will be distinguish itself from other private schools.
As reported in the New York Times, Avenues’ founders say that when the school opens in September of 2012 the students will learn bilingually, in classrooms where half of the instruction will be in Spanish or Mandarin, the other half in English, from nursery school through fourth grade. “Schools need to do a better job preparing children for international lives,” Avenues’ Founder, Chris Whittle, was quoted as saying.
To give parents a better sense of the benefits and the challenges of an immersive approach to language learning, I interviewed Sharon Huang, who opened the city’s first Mandarin immersion preschool, Bilingual Buds, on the Upper West Side, in 2010 after starting similar schools in New Jersey.
Your program is described as bilingual “immersion.” What does immersion mean, practically speaking, and what kinds of programs are you contrasting that with?
To me, it means a learning environment in which only the language that you are trying to learn is spoken. For instance, at the heart of Bilingual Buds’ immersion philosophy is our curriculum. Core academic subjects like math and science, as well as our “specials”, including gym, art, computer, and recess are taught in Chinese. Our teachers are also committed to remaining in Mandarin at all times and they don’t “break the language” (although our students like to test them!). English is spoken at a designated time for English language arts, and it is taught by a specialized teacher, so there is no mixing of instruction. As a point of difference, some other language programs use English to help explain or translate vocabulary, so English is sprinkled throughout.
An ideal immersion environment is also “print-rich”, which means the classroom materials and signage are all in the target language so that students are constantly seeing, reading and processing written language. Immersion
should encompass cultural education, in addition to language.
What’s the age range of your students? Is there an optimal age or age range to learn a second language? Why?
You should expose your child to a second language as early as possible. Research has shown that babies begin to lose the ability to hear sounds outside their native language beginning as early as 6 months. In my opinion, the preschool years are the perfect age to begin second language learning. Grammatical structures are being formed and children who learn early are able to speak a tonal language such as Mandarin, sounding much like a native speaker. Sadly, by age 10-12, the language learning window begins to close, meaning that language acquisition becomes more and more difficult.
Immersion sounds difficult, potentially frustrating. Is that a myth? Does your nursery school have the same kind of fun vibe that most nursery schools do–with blocks, and painting and all? Or is it somehow more rigorous or academic? Bottom line: Are the kids having a good time?
Our preschool is a lot like monolingual schools—both in vibe and materials. There are blocks and water tables and parachutes and learning centers. The difference is that the students experience an exciting curriculum in two languages instead of one. An immersion curriculum is not necessarily more academic and I want to emphasize that our program, without question, is developmentally appropriate. However, one of the byproducts of learning two languages is the development of executive function (meaning a range of mental processes including the ability to approach a problem from multiple ways, to cognitively “multi-task”). In fact, we recently had a reporter with a background in neuroscience come visit the school for an article on how learning new languages is the brain’s real “super-food.”
We are often asked if it’s difficult for a child to begin learning through immersion. How does a beginner understand what is being said? The answer is, they do it with the help of supportive teachers. Immersion teachers are experienced at facilitating understanding using physical cues and strategies. Body language, facial expressions, exaggeration and intonation all help create meaning for young students. Daily routines and the repetition of useful words and phrases also help students gain a foothold for building vocabulary. The situations that parents worry about the most—that a teacher will ask a student to do something that they don’t understand—is exactly the common, everyday classroom experiences that students learn how to navigate first. One of the reasons adults learn language more slowly than children is that they are worried about making mistakes. They are afraid to take the risks necessary for practicing a new language. Children are much less self-conscious. This fearlessness brings huge returns.
Most of the parents whose children come to our program do not speak the second language themselves. They are fascinated by what their children are able to do and envious at the same time. We don’t expect parents to do any teaching themselves, or hire tutors. We do, however expect that they support enthusiastically the idea of learning a second language at home and try to provide opportunities for their child to have exposure to people who speak the language. As far as feeling weird or uncomfortable–the school provides a whole community of parents who are in the same shoes. There may be “commiseration” and humor…but not isolation.
Who are your families? What percent are Chinese ex-pats looking to instill their native language in their children? What are the most common motivations of other parents?
Actually I cannot think of a single parent who is an expat from China. We have bilingual parents who speak Spanish, Hungarian, Korean, French, Urdu (among others) at home. We also have monolingual parents who recognize they would like their child to speak another language even if they do not speak it themselves.
How does a child process a new language as they are learning it? Do they think in both languages? Is that confusing or unsettling?
Children learning a second language early in life learn the second language in a similar way that they learned their first language. Bilingual children develop the capacity to think in each language and switch easily between the two. It is not confusing. In fact, their ability to switch back and forth is evidence of “executive control,” the ability to suppress thoughts in one language while communicating in another. Research has shown that bilingual children with heightened executive control are better able to think flexibly and creatively, and to suppress information that is not relevant to the problem at hand.
I know there are a whole host of purported benefits to learning a second language while you’re young. Because you can compare research with what you see every day, help us to differentiate the hype from the reality. What do you see as the primary cognitive benefits and do you see these as short term or long term? Does learning another language somehow really build brain power? How? What else does it do?
Aside from the benefit of being able to think more flexibly and creatively, other benefits include developing a better meta-linguistic ability, which is the understanding of how languages are formed. It is has been shown that those who have learned a second language have an easier time learning a third and fourth language. Also someone who is learning a new language is using clues to figure out what is being said in context and thus strengthening their problem solving skills. Also, just today I read an article stating that being bilingual helps build “empathy” because children are able to see things from different viewpoints. I believe that with my own children the fact that they can speak Mandarin has built their confidence in dealing with others, given them something they can be proud of, and helped them realize that it’s important to take risks in speaking even if it is not 100% correct.
A big issue, of course, is the question of whether a child who studies Chinese might one day have better opportunities in a global world in which China is a super power. Is it just crazy to think that way, so long before their ultimate interests and abilities are known? Or rather, why not take advantage of this opportunity if the young child likes it?
Many predict that China will have the number one economy in the world by 2025, which is when my sons will be hopefully graduating from college. I don’t think I am different from other parents who hope that their children will have great opportunities, interesting work, and satisfaction interacting with culturally diverse people. But even if they don’t move half way around the world, still here in NYC being able to speak another language enables them to connect in our multicultural city.
What’s the next best alternative to a live immersion school? We’ve heard of kids having success with the John Hopkins online program, for example. Is that worthwhile?
It is hard to learn a language online, but a combination of online and live teachers has good potential.
Immersion is a commitment. How should a parent determine whether it is the right path for their child?
Parents have to believe it is fundamentally important for their child—now and in the future. Immersion is not the type of activity you can take for a few weeks and feel that you’ve done it. Take a sample class, sign up for an immersion camp
program, connect with other parents. Also, see “Speaking in Tongues”, a documentary that follows students and their experiences with immersion. Only about 8% of people in the US are bilingual. Personally, I am shocked by that number, but also hopeful.