For kids, if it's Tuesday, is it English or Japanese?

Kindergarten–a novel experience in any language–got off to a baffling start last fall in one Schaumburg classroom when teacher Yuri Kim began speaking to her pupils in Japanese.

“Ms. Kim, I don’t understand what you’re saying,” came the anxious replies from some children, while others just stared blankly at her. Eight months later, those pupils are used to following instructions that come sometimes in Japanese, sometimes in English. Many can answer in Japanese, and the brighter ones are starting to read and write Japanese characters.

The class at Dooley Elementary School is part of an educational movement known as dual-language, or two-way immersion, teaching. The sink-or-swim technique alternates between two languages to instruct mixed groups of students over the whole range of subjects. The idea is to put English and non-English speakers on an even footing and push both to master a new language while their general education progresses.

So far, dual language in the United States has been used almost exclusively in English-Spanish classrooms. Proponents believe it is an efficient and effective approach to bringing Latin American immigrants into the mainstream as it improves native English speakers’ language skills. Two dozen elementary programs in Illinois use Spanish-English two-way immersion.

But a growing number of classrooms across the country are using the approach for languages that are more unfamiliar to English-trained ears. Often they target a particular foreign population–in Dooley School’s case, a sizeable contingent of Japanese families who have moved to the Schaumburg area and Community Consolidated School District 54 for corporate assignments. At the same time, the school’s program appeals to native English-speaking parents looking to give their children an educational advantage.

Every other day, Kim switches her instruction between English and Japanese in everything from reading the calendar to adding and subtracting.

As the children advance through the grades, they will learn science, social studies and history in both tongues–the theory being that the children gain true fluency with core subjects taught in Japanese.

“My whole goal is for Meghan to get proficient at it and actually be able to use [Japanese],” said Sue Shaughnessy, whose daughter is one of 21 pupil’s in Kim’s class. “Later, as an adult, knowing another language will open up so many doors for her.”

U.S. lags far behind

Across the country, dual-language programs for early grades have increased from 38 in 1990 to 260 today. But for advocates of foreign language education, the United States is still crawling far behind the rest of the world. Only 32 percent of U.S. schools offer a foreign language program, and for many of them that program doesn’t begin until middle or high school.

Part of the problem, foreign language experts say, is the geographic isolation. In parts of Europe, a 50-mile drive to the border brings one in contact with another language. In this country, they say, immigrants are encouraged to discard their language and culture.

The problem came to a head in October as America launched its war on terror and intelligence agencies discovered a shortage of people who could speak Arabic and other foreign languages.

That prompted legislators to seek additional funds for foreign language programs, but mostly at upper levels.

The Bush administration’s fiscal 2003 budget proposal allocates an additional $4 million for foreign language study at the higher-education level, but it slashes a $14 million Foreign Language Assistance Program used primarily by elementary schools.

“They just don’t make the connection,” said David Edwards, the executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages, which lobbies on behalf of foreign language programs. “It doesn’t occur to these people that you have to build a pipeline.”

At Dooley, 10 percent of the pupils are of Japanese descent. Their parents are Japanese natives who are here on short-term work assignments for companies such as Mitsubishi and Omron.

Kim signals which language will be used on a given day by the apron she wears over her clothes. She slips on the Donald Duck apron for English-only days and a blue Japanese laundry smock for Japanese-only days. For this year, the children are allowed to speak to one another and to their teacher in English. In 1st grade, any spoken English will be discouraged on Japanese days.

Kim uses plenty of repetition and visual cues to drill new words and instructions into the children’s vocabulary. So tatte kudasai, or “please stand up,” is always accompanied with the palm being raised toward the ceiling, and suwatte kudasai, or “please sit down,” is said with the palm facing the ground.

As in most kindergarten classrooms, children discuss the calendar every day. Most of the pupils can say their days of the week and some of their numbers in Japanese.

At times, Kim is forced to pantomime to get her point across. And every so often, she’ll just get bewildered faces. Then she has no choice but to fall on her last resort: English.

Designing the class was a challenge. Although there is a full-immersion Japanese kindergarten in an Oak Park Montessori school, no school in Illinois offers it as part of the dual-language program.

That meant Dooley School officials had to create the program from scratch. Kim, who was already teaching English to Japanese children in the school district, was chosen to run the dual-language Japanese kindergarten. The daughter of Korean parents living in Japan, she, too, attended an immersion school–an English immersion school. She moved to America more than 15 years ago and became a teacher.

Next year as the class moves into 1st grade, the school will have to hire another teacher of Japanese. If the program moves into junior high, finding qualified instructors who can speak Japanese and teach a core subject such as science will be even more difficult, especially with nationwide teacher shortages.

Materials scarce

Much of the material being used in the class–learning videos, animal flash cards, labels, days of the week posters and placards of the 51 Japanese phonetic characters–were not to be found in a typical teacher’s catalog. Kim bought some materials in Japan or from a local Japanese store, made others on her computer, and visited garage sales held by Japanese parents to collect them. As the program advances each year, finding instructional tools in both languages will be harder.

For now, the children are happy singing Japanese songs they’ve learned and showing off the Japanese word books their parents bought them.

Yes, they acknowledge, it’s hard writing in Japanese. And sometimes they don’t quite understand Ms. Kim.

But they know how to say hello in Japanese. And a few brag they now know two languages.

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