Language learning and language classes

People learn languages in different ways and for different reasons. In order to help you understand how your child is learning Spanish and what methods are appropriate, we are going to draw a parallel with English.

How do people learn English?

If you are a native speaker of English, you learned English by being immersed in an English-speaking environment 24/7. Nobody taught you what a noun or a verb was, or explained to you the rules of the language; somehow, your baby brain figured it all out, without making any conscious effort. But, even as a baby, you realized that people promptly responded to you when you made sounds, so you felt this urgent need to learn to speak like everybody else around you.

On the other hand, if you were born in a non-English-speaking country, you may have studied English as a foreign language (EFL), in which case you did have to learn what a noun and a verb were, in addition to countless rules of the English language.

And if you were born in the U.S. but your family spoke another language at home, or if you were born in a non-English-speaking country and came to the U.S. at an early age, you may have taken English as a Second Language (ESL). Learning English in this manner is somewhere between the other two:

  • it resembles learning English as a first language in that you are immersed in an English-speaking environment, however, you don’t have the urgent need to learn a language that a baby has, because you already speak another language, and moreover, your brain has lost some of the capacity it had to figure it all by itself;
  • it resembles learning English as a foreign language in that you will be taught by using labels and rules to describe how language works.

How does the Spanish Immersion program at Escondido work?

Children in the Spanish Immersion program learn Spanish in a way that attempts to mimic the way a native speaker learns English: by being immersed in the language and by creating the feeling that learning Spanish is an urgent need.

What does the Spanish Immersion program currently look like in middle school?

In 6th grade, students have two daily periods of core (required) classes taught in Spanish: social studies and language arts (actually, language arts is ½ Spanish, ½ English). The other subjects are taught in English. The classes that are taught in Spanish are content-based, and they follow the immersion model used at Escondido.

In 7th and 8th grades, students can take a Spanish Immersion elective. This is a language class, where Spanish is the object of study (students are not learning other “content”, as in immersion classes), and the focus is on grammar accuracy, vocabulary and reading, as in traditional foreign language classes. This class is not required, and it is one more option available among many other electives that students may choose from for their two elective slots in their schedule.

How is Spanish taught in high school?

In high school, Spanish is taught as a “foreign language”. These classes are similar to the ones a person would have to take in order to learn English in a non-English-speaking country. They are similar to the foreign language classes that you may have taken in high school or college.

Are classes in Spanish as a foreign language appropriate for Spanish immersion students?

No, this is not a good fit. As outlined above, the approach to language learning is very different in immersion classes when compared to foreign language classes. Placing a student who has learned Spanish through immersion in a foreign language class is akin placing an English speaker in an ESL class (although ESL is not exactly the same as EFL, the comparison here is valid). How would you have felt if you had been placed in ESL II as a sophomore in high school, instead of in English 10?

Do immersion students need to continue studying Spanish after 5th grade?

The answer to this question is up to each individual. It depends on what the goals are, and each individual may have different goals. But in order to give you an idea of what it means for an immersion student to stop studying Spanish after 5th grade or to continue, we can compare once again with the native speaker of English and his/her English classes.

A person who can speak, read and write English at 5th grade level can function adequately in an English-speaking environment. For example, this person can go about his/her daily life and do shopping, make appointments, speak on the phone, talk to co-workers, watch movies, etc. This person can perform a variety of jobs and be a productive member of the society. For this person, 5th grade level English is just fine.

Another English-speaking person may want to pursue a career for which college level studies are required. In order to do this, high school graduation is a pre-requisite. But some of the classes required for graduation are…English classes! Not only that, but this person will most likely be required to take English classes even in College!

So why is it that this English speaker must continue to take English classes in high school and college? Because even though we are fluent and literate to a certain degree in our native language as children, language continues to develop in later years. For some life-styles, 5th grade English is not enough. And exposure to English alone is not sufficient, thus the need for formal education: English classes for the native speaker.

The same argument goes for Spanish!

Are students in the Spanish Immersion program really bilingual?

Bilingualism is a matter or degree. It cannot be defined in absolute terms. Someone can be more or less bilingual, stronger in one language than in the other, stronger in one language in certain aspects and in the other language in other aspects, even have only passive bilingualism (the case of somebody in a bilingual household who understands everything but doesn’t speak the language), etc.

What you may really be wondering is whether these students are “balanced” bilinguals (both languages are equally developed), or whether, they are “native-like” in their non-native language.

Native Spanish-speakers in immersion programs for the most part do become balanced bilinguals, and acquire English to a point where they are indistinguishable from native English-speakers.

Native English-speakers, on the other hand, sometimes do not develop Spanish to the same degree, and are not quite “native-like” in Spanish.

This asymmetry is not due to the program or to the students’ abilities. It is the result of circumstances beyond our control, some of which are:

  • the amount of exposure to Spanish that English speakers have: they live in an English speaking environment and only their academic life occurs in Spanish;
  • the fact that they are no longer babies: our ability to acquire language changes as we grow older;
  • motivation is an important factor in language learning, but no matter how strong our immersion students’ motivation, it can’t be as strong as that of a baby learning her/his first language.

Recall that immersion classes try to mimic the way a native speaker learns language, but the exact conditions are impossible to re-create. Therefore, identical results cannot be guaranteed.
Finally, language acquisition is a process that takes time. Students often make mistakes that are due simply to the developmental stage in which they are. This is natural and expected.

To sum up:
Although some immersion students are not “native-like” in Spanish, they are bilingual. They have learned Spanish in elementary school in a manner that closely resembles the way in which native speakers learn their first language. In middle school and high school, this is the model that is most appropriate for immersion students too.

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