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

Published: Sunday, Jan. 29 2012 10:00 p.m. MST

And while money is a convenient explanation, in this case it misses the mark. Among French immersion students, researchers found that "when gender, socio-economic background, and parent's education are taken into account ... immersion students still out perform their counterparts in non-immersion programs," according to a 2004 report by Statistics Canada.

But those findings aren't limited to Canada where well developed social programs even out distinctions between the haves and have nots. In a study of French immersion students in the Cincinnati Public School system researchers found that children who were from socio-economically underprivileged backgrounds benefited from immersion instruction as much as their more affluent peers. "Bilingual education helps to level the socio-economic playing field by giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to acquire and excel in another language ... in some cases (they) perform as well as students from more advangtaged backgrounds," said Fred Genesee, researcher on the study, from his office at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

Brain Development:

Numerous studies show a link between learning a second language as a child and IQ. In their 1979 landmark study of language immersion, RJ Griffore of Michigan State University and DD Samuels of William Paterson University in New Jersey found that immersion students out-performed their non-immersion peers on IQ tests. They noted that immersion students are particularly good at answering questions that asked them to interpret and organize a series of seemingly unrelated objects. But they weren't sure why.

It wasn't until data imaging that this theory could be examined more systematically. Dr. Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto Canada, uses traditional experimentation and brain imaging to study how learning a second language impacts children's cognitive development. Bilingual children, she noticed, tend to have have increased density of grey matter in the left inferior parietal cortex than their monolingual peers. This is because that section of the brain houses our "executive control" functions. She has found that learning a new language requires the constant involvement of the "executive control system," to help the child manage attention to the new language. Bialystok believes that the experience of learning a new language enhances the executive control system making it more robust for other functions too. In addition to moderating a person's ability to focus, the executive control system manages the ability to problem solve, to suppress misleading information, and to switch between multiple frameworks, said Fred Genesee.

To see how this enhanced functioning plays out on an achievement tests consider one of Bilyastok's experiments. Bilingual and monolingual students were asked whether the sentence "Apples grow on noses." was grammatically correct. The monolingual children were confused and often unable to answer the question. The bilingual children, by contrast, were successful in identifying that the sentence, although ridiculous, was grammatically correct. In this experiment, she explains, "the ability to ignore meaning when it is not part of the task is harder for monolingual children." In this case, children who speak a second language seem to be better able to focus on important details needed to correctly answer the question.

Parental Involvement

Sand Springs Elementary School in Layton has an award winning Spanish immersion program. Because of high demand and limited spots, the school holds a lottery for prospective students each year before the start of classes. Parents who want to have their children's names on the list are asked attend an information meeting at the school. "At the meeting they ask you to commit to the program," said Amy Mullins, whose son Daniel is part of the kindergarten Spanish immersion class there. "They ask you stay with the program, to not to take your kids out to school, and to read with them everyday for 20 minutes in English," she said.

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