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Language Immersion – Frequently Asked Questions

What do we mean by immersion?

In an immersion program, teachers and students spend the majority of their class time, in all subjects, speaking the target (second) language. This allows students to acquire the new language almost effortlessly, while developing the full range of expected academic skills in their other subjects.

What do we mean by bilingual?

Many people associate the term “bilingual” with near-perfect skill in speaking two languages. In linguistics, the term can be used for any amount of proficiency in more than one language.

At ISI we mean that our students will achieve high levels of proficiency in two or more languages. Like most multilingual people, they will likely always maintain a native language in which they feel strongest and most comfortable.

Still, upon graduation our students are often capable of studying at college level in two (or more) languages.

Isn’t bilingualism harmful?

No. Studies suggest that the brain is very skilled at learning multiple languages simultaneously without mixing them up. In fact, there is evidence that bilingualism helps keep the brain alert and slows down onset of brain deterioration in old age.

Bilingual people also tend to be “smarter,” not necessarily as measured on an IQ test, but in terms of the way they approach new situations. They have a stronger set of critical thinking skills and strategies with which to solve problems.

Why do you often use the word “acquisition” instead of “learning?”

“Learning” suggests the more typical foreign language instruction found in schools and night classes around the world, in which students spend a few hours per week being taught the target language. In such situations, the teacher will often not be a native speaker and will spend most of each lesson explaining in students’ native language rather than communicating in the target language. Students in such programs end up “knowing” a lot about the language – vocabulary and grammar rules, for example – but may still not be able to speak the language very well.

“Acquisition” describes the natural way that we learn our own first language. Parents typically do not teach their young children grammar – they do not teach long lists of vocabulary or correct their child’s language unless they say something factually wrong. In spite of this, all young children learn their native language very quickly. They make errors, to be sure, but quickly learn to self-correct as they begin to recognize the patterns of those more skilled at the language.

Shouldn’t children master their first language before learning a second one?

No. It’s not necessary to wait to learn additional languages. Children will still develop their primary language if they still use it regularly – for example with parents and other family – even if it is not one of the languages taught at school.

There is a difference, though, between spoken and written language. Even children with severe learning difficulties can develop spoken fluency in multiple languages. Reading and writing, however, require higher order abilities, which is why most children speak even their first language quite well some years before they are able to read and write.

What can I expect to see in my child at the beginning of the immersion process?

Children who are very confident and extroverted may try using the new language immediately, and proudly show off new words and phrases. Most children, however, may appear unable or reluctant to use the new language. This is perfectly normal. Learners naturally go through a “silent period” at the beginning of the acquisition process. In fact, there is a lot of activity going on within the brain.

It is important to understand and respect this silent period, which can last many months in some children. There’s no advantage in forcing the child to speak, and in fact it can do more harm than good.

In the early stages, the child will comprehend much more than he or she can say or write. Perception and understanding are always far ahead of production, or active use, of the language.

Will my child experience a form of “culture shock?”

Possibly. The term “culture shock” generally refers to the emotional and physical symptoms experienced by those in an unfamiliar country or culture. Entering a language immersion program seems to involve some form of mild culture shock, and also “language shock.”

When added to the challenges of entering a new school and fitting in with a new group of children, these factors can have an effect on a child’s psyche. The child may seem sad, angry, unsettled, or moody.

Happily, these symptoms are normal and temporary, and our teachers and counselors are skilled in dealing with them. Our students emerge from the experience greatly strengthened in many ways.

Should I try to speak the target language at home with my child?

Though we understand the impulse to provide your child extra help at home, the answer is no.

You can best help your child by providing a strong foundation in their primary language. Keep speaking to them just as you have been, and make sure your child has as much authentic exposure to their native language as possible. Languages have strong emotional ties, and the child may not feel right speaking with you in the target language.

If your home language is not one of the school’s languages, this may take the form of finding suitable children’s books, DVDs, recordings, and so on, plus extra efforts to keep in touch with the wider family through letters, cards, email, phone, webcam, etc., so that your child continues to develop spoken language and literacy in his or her native language.

Occasionally in a family, a child’s parents will each speak a different language. The situations vary by case, but the best advice is that each parent should use his or her own language with the child.

Won’t my child be behind other local children if she is educated in a foreign language like this?

Many schools offering immersion programs similar to ours do see students score below other monolingual, English-speaking students on standardized tests at around Grades 2 and 3. However, most schools also report that by fifth grade the immersion students catch up to and begin to outperform their non-immersion peers.

There are a number of reasons for this: For one, standardized tests in the United States are designed specifically for students who are educated entirely in English and follow a math curriculum in a specific order. At the early elementary level, these tests can be a hurdle for children who have not been educated entirely in English. They also aren’t designed to measure any additional skills that children in immersion are acquiring.

For another, immersion students may in fact experience some very temporary delay in their development of academic concepts, due to having to learn the language of instruction at the same time as the academic content.

Finally, studies have shown that children educated bilingually gain significant academic advantage on their monolingual peers, but this does not necessarily show up until the later elementary grades.

Bilingual education requires long-term perspective and a long-term commitment from parents. In the end, a bilingual education is far more powerful than a monolingual one.

My 3rd grader seems pretty fluent in French now. Wouldn’t this be a good time to put her back into the local school system?

No, because it’s easy to mistake this level of fluency for the deeper fluency that comes later.

Jim Cummins, a respected Canadian researcher who conducts research into the Canadian French and English immersion programs, talks about a difference between two types of language skills: BICS and CALP. BICS stands for basic interpersonal communication skills. Typically BICS comes to language learners quite easily and fairly rapidly.

CALP, or cognitive academic language proficiency, comes only after a student has spent several years learning science, humanities, math, etc., in the target language. CALP comes from dealing with challenging, abstract topics in the target language.

Parents who move their child out of the immersion program before CALP progress is well underway will undoubtedly waste much of their child’s early development in the language, even if they employ a tutor at home. They also risk placing the child in a setting that will not fully value the child’s immersion learning.