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Language immersion classrooms: Programs are popular, diligence translates to performance

Published: Sunday, Jan. 29 2012 11:04 p.m. MST

Sophie Mertlich, front left, and Ariel Harp participate in Alisa Wu's third grade Chinese immersion class at Lone Peak Elementary School in Sandy, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Ms Alisa Wu's third grade class in Sandy looks like any other classroom in the country. The desks are lined in neat rows. Brightly colored pictures of letters and vocabulary words decorate the walls. The students read aloud a story from a primer. When they finish, they are lead in a music lesson by their teacher.

But this is no ordinary class.

The letters that cover the walls are Chinese characters. The story the class reads, entirely in Mandarin, is about an important Chinese holiday. And the song the eight-year olds are singing is a Chinese translation of a "Party Rock Anthem," a popular American song. Ms. Wu's class is not completing a unit on China, nor is their interest in Chinese language and culture a passing phase. They are part of a Mandarin language immersion program at Lone Peak Elementary.

Wu's class is part of a growing trend of language immersion classrooms. In 1981 there were fewer than 30 immersion programs in the country, today there are 448, according to a 2011 report released by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), a non-profit organization that advocates for foreign language instruction. States like Minnesota and Utah are leading the way with 52 and 58 schools offering language immersion options. American students are being educated in Spanish, French, Mandarin, Japanese, German, Arabic, and Norwegian.

One of the most intriguing aspects of these programs, both for parents and educators, is that immersion students tend to outperform their English-only peers on standardized tests. Why this phenomena exists is not entirely clear, but several factors unique to these programs provide some insight. Learning a new language simulates brain development in ways that enhance mental flexibility and develop problem solving skills says Ellen Bialystok, a research psychologist at York University in Toronto Canada. Parents with children in immersion programs may be more invested in their kids education, which has strong positive impact on student achievement notes Fatima Baig an education researcher at the University of Iowa. Finally, the nature of language immersion teaches students how to stick to difficult tasks. This diligence translates to better performance on exams, because students will be more likely to persist on challenging problems, according to a report released by the department of education at the University of Pennsilvanyia.

Superior performance

Student performance results from Canada, where language immersion has been a staple for over 30 years, are impressive. They've found that children enrolled in French-immersion programs consistently outperform their non-immersion counterparts. For example, on the 2009 Program International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, an assessment of student performance by country, Canadian students enrolled in French immersion scored about 50 points higher on the reading examination than their non-immersion peers, according to data compiled by Statistics Canada.

To put those numbers in perspective, Canadian French-immersion students average scores are higher than the average score for China, the top performing country in the survey. Immersion students scored an average of 573 on their reading exam, while non-immersion students averaged 523 points. China's average was 554. Canada as a whole scored 524.

In the United States, where language immersion programs are a more recent development, similar results have been observed. In Utah, for example, Chinese immersion students perform 6-11 percent better than non-immersion students on state board examinations, said Sandra Talbot, program director for Utah Chinese Dual Immersion.

Socio-economic status

The superior performance of language immersion students is often explained simply as a function of socio-economic status. Immersion students, the theory goes, tend to come from more affluent families and children from more affluent families do better in school, said Doug Willms, professor at the University of New Brunswick and member of the US National Academy of Education.

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