Pursuing Bilingualism: Immersion vs. Non-Immersion

Many people believe that learning another language generates opportunities for successful cross-cultural communication and better employment. In the United States, additional language instruction is considered essential for students to be globally prepared. Chinese, as a language spoken by the world’s largest emerging economy, has been gaining popularity in the U.S.  A report by the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council revealed that by November 2013, 147 U.S. schools were offering Mandarin immersion programs to K-12 students. Learning Chinese has become a nationwide trend in the U.S. [caption id="attachment_4106" align="alignnone" width="533"] Data source: Mandarin Immersion Parents Council
http://miparentscouncil.org/full-mandarin-immersion-school-list/[/caption] Whether you are a school administrator or a parent, how do you decide what type of Chinese program is best for your school or children? Would you prefer an immersion program or a non-immersion program? What are some challenges that school administrators face when starting a Chinese immersion program? Immersion vs. Non-immersion Non-immersion programs are typically world language classrooms that meet a few times a week and focuses on the foreign language as a single subject that is separate from the main curriculum. This is different from immersion programs that integrate learning the language through various content areas. The language becomes the tool for learning other subjects. There are currently two main types of immersion programs: one-way (focus on learning the target language, in our case, Chinese) and two-way (focus on learning both English and Chinese). Asia Society's latest study suggests that language immersion programs have many advantages compared to non-immersion programs, including academic achievement, language and literacy development, and cognitive skills. Intercultural competence and multilingualism are also considered valuable in creating multiple pathways to employment possibilities. In addition, learning another language at an early age is also facilitative to the development of native-like language proficiency. Thus, more and more US schools are offering Chinese immersion programs to young learners, meeting the need of 21st century learners and cultivating a new generation of global citizens. Challenges Starting a Chinese immersion program is not an easy task. An article from CARLA website written by Mary Patterson, the Principal of Woodstock Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, showed top concerns in the refinement of a Mandarin immersion program: ”What are the language forms and functions that will be taught at each grade level? What is the related vocabulary? How will this be articulated across the grade levels?” Other concerns are related to the balance of language and content, alignment to national or state standards, curriculum design and relevant resources. The chart below is a demonstration of the challenges that a school administrator is faced with when starting a Chinese immersion program.   A Chinese immersion program provides more exposure to the target language in terms of subject matter and contents. However, to achieve native-like proficiency in Chinese, students need more opportunities for real-life interactions, especially for students from non-Chinese-speaking families. In a discussion I initiated on LinkedIn, many teachers have identified the issue of language use in and the percentage of using Chinese vs. using English in the classroom. It seems that even in a Chinese immersion classroom, teachers may still use English to give instructions, interpret tasks and for classroom management. Some teachers also pointed out that for young Chinese learners with lower Chinese proficiency level, more English prompts are needed for classroom activities. How to promote authentic L2 (second language) use is an important issue for teachers and school administrators to consider. Whether you are a school administrator, a parent, or a Chinese teacher, what are your expectations on a Chinese immersion program? What percentage of target language use would you prefer in the classroom? What are your challenges or concerns? References Fortune, T. W. Asia Society: What research tells us about immersion. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://asiasociety.org/education/chinese-language-initiatives/what-research-tells-us-about-immersion Patterson, M. (2007, May). CARLA: Reflections on administering an elementary school Mandarin immersion program. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.carla.umn.edu/immersion/acie/vol11/no3/may08_immersion101.html Weise, E. (2013, November 20). Mandarin Immersion Parents Council: Mandarin immersion schools in the United States in 2014. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://miparentscouncil.org/2013/11/20/mandarin-immersion-schools-in-the-united-states-in-2014/


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