Friday, 7 March 2008

Language Immersion - Can it work?

Language immersion is getting popular these days. Mandarin immersion schools are popping up everywhere between San Diego and Vancouver. French immersion schools are available for children throughout English-speaking Canada. And of course, more and more Spanish immersion schools are appearing everywhere in the United States. But here is the 60,ooo Dollar (or is that Euro, nowadays?) question: does language immersion work?

Here in Rome, Italian parents are so eager for their children to speak another language that I often have the opportunity to meet Italian children who attend the French school or one of the English schools. The results are...not stunning. Most of the kids can understand the immersion language fine but their speaking ability remains limited.

This is not surprising. Even at a French or English school in Rome, the classrooms are filled with...other Italian children... who guessed it, Italian with one another. So the children are getting exposure to the immersion language exclusively from their teachers. In that environment, it is unlikely that the child will ever become bilingual as a result of immersion alone. He or she may eventually be able to speak the language somewhat fluently but even there, there are many, many cases where this simply does not happen.

Another risk of immersion is that the child learns to read and write neither the immersion language, nor his or her mother tongue very well...

My advice for those considering immersion education for their children is this: unless you can offer additional support for your child in that language either at home or in the local environment, don't expect your child to become bilingual!

Who can provide additional language-support to a child who attends an immersion school? Any mother tongue-speaker you can find. A parent or grandparent who speaks the language (as a mother tongue, mind you), an au-pair, a babysitter or a nanny. What is crucial is that there be someone in addition to just the teachers at school, either in family life or in the local environment (for example, if your child is in Spanish immersion AND you live in a predominantly hispanic neighbourhood where your child hears Spanish spoken every day), who speaks to your child in that language on a frequent and regular basis.


Penny said...

Very interesting. I like the new blog and look forward to reading more


Delina said...

Love the new look blog. The header photo is great!

The Not Quite Crunchy Parent said...

Interesting post and good advice. I'd add "think ahead" to your list.

Many children I know had a native speaker of another language nanny as an infant and toddler then once they began school no longer had that native speaker in their life or on a much more limited basis. And...of course lost most of the vocabulary they learned

Yes, hearing another language early does help in acquiring some fluency later but, spending a lot of extra money to attain fluency when a child is very young won't produce fluency unless a native speaker is consistently in a child's life for a long time.

That said, I'm all for exposing children to another language as much as possible. Even if fluency isn't attained the exposure to another culture and language can only help both intellectually AND socially as the US becomes less "the center of the world"

P.S. love the new blog!

Destination Infinity said...

Agreed, its pretty tough to learn another language, which is not practically used in your own neibhourhood. I wanted to learn German and throughout college, was doing some learning. I can read some of it and understand, but not talk at all. I started to learn Kannada, when I came to Bangalore(Though I didnt know the language earlier) and I started picking up the language very fast. The environ definitely helps, as you said.

Buzzers Kuber Natarajan said...

Speaking is one of the language skills that has to be mastered by students in learning foreign language.

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