I spent the morning of May 4th at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland to see Maine’s first public language immersion program in action. I came away immensely impressed.
I observed a math class where students in first grade were communicating enthusiastically about geometry in Spanish; I watched a kindergarten class where students were happily talking about the parts of plants and their functions in Spanish. The work the students were doing either matched or exceeded the work I see students doing in the single-language classrooms in schools where I have taught. Students in both classes were clearly able to understand their Spanish-speaking teachers as they discussed everything from behavior to friendship to academics.
The teachers, Pedro and Susana, native speakers from Spain, as well as their assistant Carlos, also from Spain, are highly skilled teachers who are devoted to the children and their mission, which is creating bilingual students in the context of an outstanding general education. The program, now in its second year, boasts one class of kindergarten children and one of first grade, both housed within the single-language Lyseth Elementary School. The plan is for the program to grow by one grade level each year through fifth grade.
The research shows that children in immersion programs generally perform academically at a higher level than their single-language peers. I asked to see standardized test scores so I could compare Lyseth immersion students with their peers. Children in the immersion classrooms scored either at the same level as their single-language peers at Lyseth or at a higher level. The expectation, based on experience in states such as Minnesota and Utah with a history of immersion programs, is that as these children get older their academic lead on single-language students will continue to grow. So not only are these students achieving proficiency in a second language at a young age – they are also excelling compared to other students.
Nationwide a movement toward increasing language learning opportunities in schools is growing. Twenty states now offer a Seal of Biliteracy to students who graduate high school proficient in at least two languages. Colleges and professional recruiters are looking for applicants who speak multiple languages. National boundaries no longer define who we can work for, or who we will interact with in the context of our professional lives, and skill with languages is fast becoming a necessity.
Maine would do well to step it up in relation to language education. Some districts have elementary language programs, but most of these offer only thirty minutes or an hour of instruction per week. This is nothing compared to Lyseth Elementary, which offers 90% of a student’s total school instruction in the target language in the early grades. The majority of Maine’s school districts wait until middle or high school to offer beginning language education.
Anyone who has studied a language will tell you that starting to learn a second language while young – when the brain is still primed for language learning – is the way to go. The particular language doesn’t matter – any language studied in an immersion context will stick, and any will benefit the brain. The following languages – Mandarin, French, Arabic, Spanish, and Japanese – are currently considered most likely to be helpful in a professional context.
Lyseth is Maine’s pioneer in language immersion programs. We should look to the teachers there for advice as we work toward building a state-wide language immersion school network and Seal of Biliteracy.