Many of the language-immersion programs in the United States are modeled after Canadian programs that seek to teach French to English-speaking Canadians.
Canada’s first language-immersion programs began in Quebec public schools in 1975, and similar projects began in the United States in the late 1980s, growing in number in the 1990s, according to David Dolson, a consultant for the California Department of Education’s language policy and leadership office.
The Canadian programs were started by educators concerned that students weren’t learning enough French in traditional language programs.
“English speakers weren’t acquiring enough French to do well in school and get jobs in French-speaking places,” said Dolson.
Canada’s dual-immersion language programs vary from a 50-50 split between French and English spoken in the classroom to a 90-10 ratio. Some of the programs begin in kindergarten, and others aren’t offered until high school.
In Canada, the majority of English and French speakers in immersion programs tend to come from middle-class families and usually aren’t recent immigrants, said Dolson.
But in California schools offering dual-immersion programs for Spanish and English speakers, many Spanish-speaking students are new immigrants.
These students often are from families with lower incomes than their English-speaking counterparts. Family poverty often is correlated with low academic performance, which helps researchers explain why California’s Spanish-speaking children tend to take longer to become fluent in English in dual-immersion programs than Canada’s English-speaking students do in French.
“It takes the Spanish speakers more time to gain the academic literacy skills in English than the English speakers in Canada to reach it in French,” said Dolson. “But (the Spanish speakers) do reach those levels.”
At Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Davis, 30 percent of the students in the Spanish immersion program are Latino, but only 9 percent are English-language learners. Most of the Latino children come to the school already fluent in English.
Proposition 227, approved by California voters in 1998, prohibits schools from educating English-language learners in bilingual programs.
Dolson said parents of English-language learners may still enroll their children in immersion programs, but must sign a waiver to do so. Proposition 227 is silent on immersion programs for English-proficient students, Dolson said.
“After Proposition 227, (immersion programs) are one of the few refuges for Spanish-speaking children in terms of having a bilingual education,” said Dolson. “The other avenues have been reduced or cut off.”
Information on the Web
For more information on foreign language education, visit the following Web sites:
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages: www.actfl.org
Center for Applied Linguistics: www.cal.org
Language Immersion Education:http://carla.acad.umn.edu/immersion.html
California Association for Bilingual Education: www.bilingualed.com