In what is thought to be the first research study into the efficacy of immersion learning in foreign languages, students from Palo Alto’s Ohlone Elementary have comparable skills in Mandarin as high school students who are studying the language in Advanced Placement courses.
The study was authored by Stanford University and focused on fourth and fifth graders from the elementary school. The students have spent at least half their day instructed in their core subjects in Mandarin throughout their time at the school. The other half of the day is spent receiving instruction in English.
The researchers also found that the elementary students had no difference in linguistic ability with native Mandarin speakers. Immersion programs are becoming more and more popular across the country, particularly in the elementary grades.
In the year 2000, there were about 260 dual language programs in the US. There are now more than 2,000 nationwide, including 300 in the state of New York alone, according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Most of which are in Spanish.
This efficacy in language learning is thought to be because the language acquisition centers in the brain are at their most active early in life, during the elementary years. They begin to wane as children reach puberty. Of course, that is when most foreign language students in this country start their language learning.
Aside from considerable language skills, the benefits of immersion programs (and language learning in general) include:
- Improved conceptual and critical thinking
- Enhanced memory
- Increased cultural awareness
- Improved linguistic skills in the native language
- Improved performance on standardized tests and the SAT
- Enhanced employment prospects
This refutes many parents’ primary concern about immersion programs—that students who participate will fall behind their peers in English skills. An earlier study from the Stanford researchers found that immersion students perform on par with their English-only counterparts on English reading and writing tests.
Beginning in an immersion program can be a harrowing experience for both students and parents. Online language learning can supplement what is going on in the classroom and help the student catch up and keep pace with their more-experienced peers.