How effective can immersion schools be?
February 26, 2018 1:13 PM   Subscribe

I am very well aware that multiligualism is beneficial, but in some cases I am not sure that it outweighs potential challenges with overall academic excellence. We've been debating enrolling our son in a French immersion school, but my own experience has shown me that it can be unnecessarily challenging. If you have anecdotes or other evidenced opinions on educating children in a language other than the one(s) they speak/hear at home, I'd love to hear them.

I am fluent (S5 proficiency) in English and two other languages (A,B - category 3 and 4), less so (S2) in a fourth (C - category 1), and able to understand/ speak but not read or write in a fifth (D - category 3).

At around first grade, my English-speaking parents enrolled me in a school in our native country where everything was taught in Language A, as were all my cousins (we'd recently moved back from Canada.) The entire immediate and extended family spoke English at home, unaccented and fluent, because my grandparents and parents had all been raised during a time when my country was still under the influence of British colonialism and native languages were banned from schools. My parents and grandparents spoke Language D with the help, which I learned 100% by osmosis (I honestly cannot even remember when I first picked it up - no one ever taught me any words, or showed me sentence structure, yet I seemingly magically speak it.)

Native school was really a struggle - not just for me, but for many of my cousins. Most of us were pretty bright, we had tutors after school, we had all available resources. Our grandparents and parents all had graduate degrees, so our study habits were impeccable. Finally, seeing how much I was struggling with studying ALL THE SUBJECTS (grrrr, geography was a killer) in my native tongue, my parents enrolled me in an international school, where everything was taught in English, with an hour a day of our native language (A), and another hour a day of Language B. (My mom had a tutor for me for Language B and just for funsies, Language C. Ugh.) Many of my cousins followed suit, and it was life-changing for us. We turned into A students, and many of us went on to very successful paths in academia and other fields.

Whenever I've attempted to pick up other languages (German in college, for example, or Farsi with my Iranian friends) it's been very easy - native speakers remark positively on my accent and I become conversant in relatively short periods of time. Retention is a lot lower than for my main languages, however. It's possible this ease with languages comes from my diverse background, so I clearly see there is an advantage to it.

I'm not sure whether my cousins who stayed in the native school continued to struggle with the non-English curriculum, but certainly they never flunked out. They did have tutors though, that the rest of us didn't need, especially with STEM subjects. Things probably evened out once we all went to college (English universities in Australia, the UK and the United States.)

Given my own struggles with what was essentially an immersion school in my native language, I am wondering exactly how much of an advantage my son will have as he grows older if we enroll him in French immersion here in California. My son will not have the advantage of family who speak multiple languages the way mine used to (English at home, Language A with other natives in grocery stores, banks, etc.; Language D with the help). I probably cannot help him with, for example, higher grade math or science homework in French (my language C) even though I am a scientist and can speak French. We could get him a tutor if he needs it, but I'd rather not let school get that challenging to begin with.

Is it possible my struggles with immersion originated from not being enrolled in the native school before first grade? We'd enroll my son at kindergarten, so he'd be younger than I was. Are children who study in immersion and speak a different language at home at a disadvantage to those who speak that language at home? Do you have any personal anecdotes related to such situations? I'd love for my son to be proficient at more than one language, but not at the expense of his overall academic excellence (whatever that may be, let's assume he is a smart kid for now!)

Side note: Right now, he is two, and his expressive speech is delayed. However, we have a nanny who speaks Portuguese to him, and he has demonstrated that he understands complex commands in both English and Portuguese. I wanted to begin speaking my native language to him but am holding back because of his speech delay. We're confident he will catch up (and so are his SLPs), and we will not enroll him in an immersion school until he is fully caught up to his peers.

Thank you very much!
posted by Everydayville to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My kids (6 and nearly 10) are in first and fourth grade in a Southern California Spanish Immersion program. We speak English at home exclusively. My wife speaks Spanish nearly fluently but not quite. All of our daily interactions with kids and family are in English. Both kids started in Kindergarten and have taken to Spanish quite well. At the school, 90% of instruction is in Spanish, and both kids have a regular English class (once a week for first grade, daily for fourth grade). It's my understanding that once they're in middle school, instruction will be 50% English and 50% spanish, with individual classes (like Math, for instance) in a single language one year and in the other language in the next. The goal of this program is to make the kids bilingual, not exclusively Spanish or English speakers. For each incoming kindergarten class, half of the kids speak Spanish natively at home and the other half speak English natively. The school has a lot of resources for parents who speak both English and Spanish, and my wife and I have learned a lot of Spanish.

My kids are doing very well in school in both English and Spanish coursework despite only speaking English at home.
posted by sleeping bear at 1:39 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Anecdata below.

My parents placed both myself and my younger brother in French immersion starting from pre-school (the year before kindergarten). I continued until grade 12 but I think my brother transitioned out somewhere in high school. The program we were in was 100% French for all subjects other than "English" in elementary (Grades K-6), slightly less French in Jr High (grades 7-9) and slightly less again in High School (grades 10-12). I grew up in Alberta, Canada.

We spoke English only at home - my parents are not fluent in any other languages than English.

We both completed high school at the top of the honour roll. I also completed AP Biology with a 5/5 score. We both went to excellent schools and graduated with Bachelor's of Science degrees. We now have awesome careers.

The only issues I ever faced were the following:
- My Brownie leader didn't believe me that there was a "French" version of the Canadian national anthem (I only knew it in French)
- When I went to university, it was the first time I had ever had a chem or bio lab in English. I didn't know the English words for any of the lab equipment, but I just paired up with other immersion kids and we did our labs in Franglish.

Having French has been hugely beneficial for me. Spanish and Italian both come easy, visiting Quebec is fun, and I once realized, in Oslo, that the only language the Vietnamese restaurant owner and I had in common was French.

I am a bit evangelical about immersion schooling because I don't see any disadvantages and I think there are so many advantages to having those language pathways open earlier. I have watched many friends and colleagues try to learn a 2nd language late in life and really struggle.

As far as helping your kid with harder homework - math and science work the same in English and French. You'll have no trouble (and my parents had no trouble) helping me with STEM even though they weren't able to read the problems. Your kid will be sufficiently advanced in French at that point that he'll be able to help translate back and forth.
posted by some chick at 1:42 PM on February 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

My daughter is enrolled in French Immersion and she is enjoying it so far (she's in Grade 1 and this is her second year in immersion). At home she speaks either English or Japanese. I took French up to high school so for now my rusty knowledge of French is better than hers, although her pronunciation is much better than mine.

My daughter has a classmate who just moved to Canada a couple of years ago. At home he speaks Russian and his mother doesn't speak any English at all. He is struggling in class because even though it is French Immersion the teachers will still use English to help the kids and that doesn't work with him because he barely has any English. His parents are really worried about how he is doing but are sticking with it for now.

As far as if it will be worth it, I don't know yet. Parents will sometimes move to a French Immersion program so that they can go to a better school but we were perfectly happy with her local school. One thing is because we're in Canada having strong French can be useful for jobs here. If you're in California I don't think your son will get the same benefit. If you're looking into an immersion program that'll give some practical benefit to your son he'd probably be better off with Spanish or Mandarin.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:42 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

We're in Chile, my wife speaks Spanish to my 10 year old son, I speak exclusively English with him since before he was born. As a baby / toddler, his English was about 1 year behind his Spanish, and he understood me but wouldn't answer in English.

Once he started going to immersion school, where prekinder - 4th grade are taught in mostly English and his non-native teachers spoke to him in English and expected him to answer in it, he started speaking English at home, and is now fully bilingual. He's a good reader, and reads mostly in English. He also watches and posts to Youtube mostly in English as well. He has a large, grown-up vocabulary in both languages.

He has an advantage because he was already speaking the language before starting school. Since his classes are in English and his English is better than his classmates', he also has a head start in science and math, etc., as he's not struggling with the language as well as the material, and he's in the top of his class grade-wise. His teachers love him, and always congratulate us on his English (among other things).

He's very happy about all this, and always thanks me for teaching him English, not just because of school, but all the other things (online, books, movies, etc) that this opens up for him.

Plus, it's fun to have a 'secret' language to speak with your son, brings you closer together.
posted by signal at 1:44 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've read that starting in kindergarten is better/easier than first grade. And your child would probably benefit from whatever language(s) you speak to them, as their brain is keyed right now to language acquisition. (And age 2 is still very much acquisition phase! Even if the child isn't outputting it clearly yet!)

And, as it was for you, you can always change your choice back to English if it *is* too challenging for your child.

I've heard from some parents in French immersion in Canada that there, because there is almost too much of a demand for French-speaking teachers and not enough of a supply, the quality of teaching is not always as good. I don't know what the demand vs supply is for French speaking teachers in your area.

(I am planning on sending my kid to Chinese immersion for kindergarten this Fall.)
posted by jillithd at 1:52 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm really glad to hear all these positive stories about immersion, but it has me wondering why I struggled so much in it!
posted by Everydayville at 1:54 PM on February 26, 2018

I too struggled with immersion schooling, so you're not alone Everydayville! In my case I went to a Spanish/English school in Spain starting in first grade, English is my first language, and my parents spoke English at home. It was very difficult and required tutoring. But again, I was 6. The earlier your child learns the language, the more positive their experience.

I then repeated the immersion schooling in Italian in Italy, starting at age 9 for three years. I would say my Spanish and Italian are both much closer to fluent than any other non-native speakers that I know, and I have many advantages in using these languages, but I did not achieve full fluency. Or, rather, I did, but I can no longer access it. However, I use it as much as I want to -- and that may be the key point for many immersion learners once they grow up.
posted by tooloudinhere at 2:17 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not everyone is good at multiple languages. I'm not; despite taking 7+ years in French (starting in 3rd grade, younger than most US students) and going to France, I never was able to do more than repeat the things I'd learned in my textbook like "Je cherche un pull" or whatever. I wish I was better, I would love to travel more and experiences places more authentically, but my brain just doesn't work that way.

It's an innate skill, and if you don't have it, it can indeed be a miserable experience. My cousin's husband was determined that his kids learn Mandarin, because he fondly remembered his few years there as a child (he is not Chinese; his parents were either missionaries or tradespeople, I can't remember), and wanted to take them there for vacations. My cousin does not speak Mandarin and has no emotional connection to China, but she agreed because it was important to her husband.

Even though the kids started in kindergarten, it was still a miserable experience for them. I think their friends either laughed at them or were just puzzled as to why they had to do this thing with no obvious connection. They did lousy in math, because the math was in Mandarin and that was two things to remember. And they were never good at it; eight years later, it took the younger kid having a sort-of emotional breakdown for the husband to grudgingly allow them to stop the classes. It all varies.
posted by Melismata at 2:17 PM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

My kids went to a Spanish language immersion grade school -- neither their father nor I speaks any beyond the merest guidebook smattering, but they also had a Spanish-speaking babysitter from birth which provided some casual exposure.

For them, I think it was a net positive, but I also think they had an unusually positive experience even by the standards of the program they were in, and there were negatives. As a freshman in college now, my daughter speaks Spanish sort of like a second generation heritage speaker -- solid accent, completely fluent receptive understanding, slightly screwy grammar, and slightly screwy writing. She could get a job in a Spanish speaking country and do fine, but not successfully pass as a native. My son is less successful -- also with the completely fluent receptive understanding, and a very good accent, but he's stumbly about saying things, and really doesn't like having to speak Spanish. I figure he has the basis to improve rapidly from if he ever wants it as an adult, but he very plausibly won't want it.

But it definitely made grade school more work and stress for them. I didn't realize it at the time, but when my son graduated from that program into an English-speaking middle-school where Spanish was just a class that met one period a day, he found it a huge relief, and went from not enjoying school much at all to liking it fine.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:41 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have no direct experience with immersion, but I know several parents whose children are in a Mandarin language immersion school for elementary; while they've had a good experience with the school, as their children approach middle school, they are not finding a lot of options. My question for this school you are considering is (if it's elementary only), where do the kids go after elementary school?
posted by mogget at 3:13 PM on February 26, 2018

I was in a Spanish/English immersion school from kindegarten through second grade. I LOVED IT. I imagine a lot of it has to do with the quality of the school itself. This was one of the first in the country (US) and was a magnet school in a large city, so I imagine they attracted the best teachers. It was also wonderful because it was split between kids from English speaking homes and kids from Spanish speaking homes, so it was a really great cross-cultural experience where we got to learn from each other in a setting where the Latin American cultures were not marginalized. I think that is really, really important for children in a multicultural society.

Sadly, we moved to a different school district when I was in the third grade and I didn't take Spanish until college. However, I have traveled in several Spanish speaking countries as an adult and, while I am nowhere near fluent, I always pick back up again way faster in Spanish than in French, the other language I studied in school. I'm not sure how that works developmentally, but it's like Spanish is hard-wired into my brain on some level.

Oh, and when I switched schools, I was not behind the other kids in any way, and I tested above grade level in all the standardized tests. Which is probably down more to having parents who read to me, emphasized school, etc. more than anything to do with the school itself, but still. It certainly didn't hold me back.
posted by lunasol at 3:49 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

We are 6 siblings who were all at some point in immersion schools and dealt with it very differently. For me, it's been a gift and I have never been behind in class. Some of the others really struggled. In the end, we are all at least bilingual, some speak three or four languages totally fluently and all have caught up brilliantly. People learn at different paces.
So I sent my kids to immersion schools and it was complicated. I think at the end of the day, it will work out fine (we're almost there), but specially for my youngest there have been issues. On the other hand, she chose to learn Mandarin independently, so it can't be that bad.
posted by mumimor at 3:56 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

My kid is in kindergarten at a private Spanish immersion school in California. Neither of us parents speak a foreign language fluently. She started there in pre-k about a year ago.

It's a great school but it's pretty hard for her. A lot of the kids come from bilingual Spanish households, so it is not a level playing field and she ends up judging her ability to get things done versus that of kids who grew up with both languages and have no problem understanding the teacher or communicating.

This is compounded by the trend for parents to start their kids a year late, so she is also judging herself against kids who are a year or more older in some cases.

Being only 5, the danger is that she decides that school is too hard and gives up, based on these comparisons.

We have been giving her a lot of support and encouragement but I worry we are putting too much extra strain on her learning experience.
posted by w0mbat at 4:04 PM on February 26, 2018

You weren't in immersion. Remember, in the English speaking parts of Canada, there are "French schools" and "French immersion schools." You were in the equivalent of "french school" not "french immersion school." You were at a school that assumed you spoke that language with native proficiency and were hearing that language at home and surrounded by kids who spoke that language with native proficiency and were hearing that language at home. That's different from a school where the teachers all speak a language but know that students are just learning the language.

That said, anecdata and random thoughts below...

A. I did core french, not french immersion (i.e. 40 minutes per day from grades 1-8 and then one semester a year in grades 9-OAC.). In my first year of university I took a french lit course. This was literature, not language learning, so the whole class was taught in french, the readings were obviously entirely in French and there was no English to be heard. We were allowed a French dictionary (But *not* a french-english dictionary) during the tests. I did very well and when I went up to the prof to hand in my final exam he told me I was getting one of the highest grades in the class and that he hoped I would continue in French. I told him I was intimidated by all the former french immersion students in the class who seemed to speak so much better than me. He said: French immersion students speak quickly, but their grammar is terrible. What they have is confidence not skill. Now of course he may have been trying to make me feel better, who knows.

B. PUtting aside how well your kid will speak French (and how correctly), I've read that French immersion, at least in Canada, has all sorts of positive outcomes that may or may not be causal and may or may not be about the language learning even if they are causal. The thing is, people who put their kids in French immersion are people who are bothering to think about their kids education instead of just doing the default thing. They're also not likely to be kids with learning disabilities or other serious problems that would be impediments to language learning. And of course they're generally kids fluent in English, so often not recent immigrants. So French immersion kids tend to do better because they are generally kids who start out with advantages. But also, they're surrounded exclusively by other kids with these same advantages. It's a sneaky way of middle-class cultural-capital-based and social-capital-based streaming.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:47 PM on February 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

Remember that assuming your in Canada, your kid won't be in French immersion with any native speakers. Those kids would be in the French school, so your kids' experience would be different from yours and different from lots of people posting about bilingual or immersion programs in the US in that way.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:48 PM on February 26, 2018

OP is in California not Canada.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:35 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think that the distinction between a French School and a French immersion school that If only I had a penguin... brings up is an important one. Both of my kids are in French immersion school, and they are doing great. The expectations are calibrated for what a group of kidscan reasonably accomplish while not, for the most part, speaking French during the time that they're not in school.
posted by umbú at 6:44 PM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don’t know how relevant this if for your situation, but here I go, just in case it’s useful:

In my country, we used to have a sizeable German minority population until about 20 years ago. We had German schools, with tuition in German as a mother tongue. Then political changes led to a mass exodus of Germans, and in order to keep the schools going they dropped their requirements for mother tongue competency upon entry. So most children after this period didn’t know any German upon entry (or not very much). I worked briefly as a kindergarden teacher (no reading & writing) with maybe one or two children (out of over 30) having some German, and then briefly as a first-grade teacher, with a couple of native speakers (out of over 40) and another one or two who had some German. German schools have mostly become immersion schools (though they are still hailed as mother-tongue schools).

My experience: children’s experience at school in terms of the quality of education they got (language and otherwise), but also in terms of how happy they were in the classroom varied hugely depending primarily on the teacher. I mean, the teacher is important in any school, particularly for younger kids, but here the difference is ENORMOUS.

By a stroke of good fortune I ended up being a fairly good teacher for as long as my teaching career lasted (all of 2 years), paradoxically because I had been a fairly poor student: unlike some of my more diligent colleagues, who were pulling their hair because 90% of what they had learned as mother-tongue teachers was useless, I had to rely on my ingenuity and on being very engaged. I really loved the children and was delighted with them, and we spent our time in super-fun and very interactive ways. If they bastardized the language, shifting from German to our other language mid-sentence, that was cool with me, and we prioritized communication over correctness. I also loved telling stories and they were still at the age where they listen with rapt attention, so they were constantly steeped in a rich linguistic environment at least at school (I don’t think more than one or two had private tuition, nor did they have nannies or anything like that. German at school and that was it). At the end of the year (for my kindergarten kids) they all, with no exception, could make themselves understood in German on a pretty wide range of topics and were fluent in all situations they encountered in kindergarden, and most of their own interaction happened in a meanwhile pretty German-heavy mix. Parents were half-delighted, half-frustrated that they frequently couldn’t talk to their kids anymore, because their mother tongue was so heavily admixed with German. Then I left, and don’t know what happened with them.

But I had the opportunity to witness a former colleague of mine doing something similar for many years (where I gave up for unrelated reasons after 2 short years); she has also meanwhile left primary education (to research the pedagogy of mother-tongue-level education in a foreign language!). She still keeps in touch with many of her former pupils, most of whom are in well-respected, professional jobs or post-grad education in Germany, Austria, Switzerland. Without exception they have native speaker skills, and then some. But she was an absolutely exceptional teacher, and again, pretty intuitively so, since everything we had learned in school was useless.

I did some subbing for her a couple of times and remember being gob-smacked at the research her kids did at barely 10 years of age, the essays they wrote, their thoughts, their conversation, their social skills. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, barring some slight age- and experience-related limitations, they were way ahead of many people my age I knew at the time. And most of the ones I worked with didn’t come from middle class families; in terms of social background the class was very diverse, though they were excellent across the board.

However, they did a LOT of extra-curricular stuff as a class as well. Each year they went on a few longish trips (10 days or more), where it was just her and the kids. They went hiking and skate-boarding together, learned how to ski, baked, cooked, whatnot – and all in German (remember that all this started when the kids had hardly any German!). When I met them, their language was ‘cleaner’ than I myself had heard from my classmates in school, since they spoke dialect at home and it seeped into the High German we used in class.

In time, I’ve met a few other non-German kids who went to this kind of immersion-like German school and who had obviously had a similarly successful school experience. But I’ve met many more with very different experiences (I worked as a private German tutor for such kids after it became fashionable to send children to German schools). I’ve also spoken to a lot of German teachers. Many children had a pretty rough time with the language, felt confused and isolated and maybe even picked on by the teacher. They often felt faced with the choice of either striving to become good at German to the detriment of the actual content of the lessons, or to try to learn the stuff in their own mother tongue and then somehow wrap the German around the content. There is basically 0 teacher training for how to deal with teaching kids who do not understand the language of tuition. Teachers use teaching methods that are useless for the situation, pay attention to the wrong thing, have no idea how, when, or if to correct language mistakes, have a completely prescriptive view of language and no notion of language learning, and provide a severely impoverished linguistic environment or else overwhelm pupils with a deluge of words that aren’t related to anything in the external world or the pupil’s own experience. Frequently, their own language competency is not great. Going to school is not fun for the kids (even less fun than in a normal school – particularly if the students are policed and not allowed to speak to each other in their mother tongue ever). Some teachers have completely given up on the whole endeavour and basically teach in the mother tongue with an occasional German word thrown in.

Anyway, long story short, personally I believe a lot depends on how good the teacher is and/or how well they click with the class (for honesty’s sake I’ll have to say that I am not a good teacher, but I was fortunate that my circumstances and the kids’ circumstances aligned just so, however briefly). My friend, whom I mentioned above and who studies this, could probably tell you how to interview prospective teachers, what questions to ask, what to pay attention to, but I don’t know enough about the theoretical/practical framework underpinning this to give you any concrete pointers beyond the anecdotal.
posted by miorita at 7:13 PM on February 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

I agree that the essential difference was that you went to a school where everyone was assumed to already function in the language at the level appropriate for a native-speaker first grader, as opposed to a language immersion school where the children are expected to be learning the target language along with first grade-appropriate skills.

My first grader is in his second year at a public charter K-8 school that offers immersion in Spanish or Mandarin and I could not be happier with how it's going. I don't expect him to get to native-level fluency or even advanced proficiency through school. But my experience has been that a huge hurdle for adult language learners is self-consciousness about speaking badly and frustration with the inability to say anything interesting or complex, and I think getting past those particular barriers in Spanish at a point where his English skills aren't all that sophisticated yet either will make it all easier. My goal is to set him up so that, if he so desires, he can pursue advanced language skills relatively easily. As far as I can tell, he's also doing all the same math, geography, etc, that a regular first grader would do and his reading and writing in English is at least at grade level, so at least so far there doesn't seem to have been a downside.

I will say that the school tells the parents to expect the kids to be somewhat stressed during their first few months at the school. I was pretty worried about it because adaptability and coping with frustration are not among my kiddo's strong points, but I think being in a classroom with a good teacher and a bunch of kids who also didn't speak Spanish made it pretty easy for him.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:51 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

A french immersion school in California is no way the same as suddenly being the only non-French speaking kid in a school in France. I would imagine that many, if not most, of the other kids are also just learning French too and the school has structures/supports/whatever in place to make this happens without traumatizing the kids. Your experience in your home country is not a valid comparison.

That said, does the school follow the French curriculum? And how much do you know about it?

I was an American kid of non-French speaking parents in French schools in France. I went to French schools there and in other countries from age 4 to age 18. I hope the French educational system has changed since I escaped from it in the late 1960s. It was barbaric, authoritarian, dehumanizing.
posted by mareli at 11:57 AM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

You were at a school that assumed you spoke that language with native proficiency and were hearing that language at home and surrounded by kids who spoke that language with native proficiency and were hearing that language at home.

Well, golly. Yes I was. Thank you for pointing this out - I've always felt there was a meaningful difference between my experience and that of people who benefited from an immersion environment, but never thought to look at the culture and calibration of the school itself.

My instincts are to enroll my son in immersion when he is ready, and go from there. These insights have been immensely helpful. Thank you all.
posted by Everydayville at 2:45 PM on February 27, 2018

« Older One-act play advice and tips?   |   Novice Voyagers vs. Trip of a Lifetime: Victoria... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.