Language Learning in School: The Promise of Two-Way Immersion (1)

Article excerpt

Consider the following excerpt from an elementary school class. Mr. Hernandez (2) is teaching a lesson about migration to his class of eight-year-olds. Half of the class are fluent speakers of English (including one student already bilingual in Chinese and English); the other half of the students are native Spanish speakers, many of whom come from families whose heritage is in Central America or Mexico. The lesson is in Spanish, and the students break into small, heterogeneous groups to work on research on the migratory patterns of different animals and birds (one group investigates whales, another butterflies, another geese, and so on). The students mostly talk to each other in Spanish, although some English can be heard. The native Spanish speakers often help the Spanish learners on how to say or spell words or phrases in that language. The teacher moves from group to group, speaking only in Spanish, guiding the research and the writing of the findings. A bit later, the groups share their work with each oth er and the teacher helps them form generalizations about migration.

Later on in the same day, during English language time with Mrs. Gilbert, students talk about the migration of people from one country to another and what issues arise. In this session, the native English speakers serve as resources for the English learners. The students spontaneously offer comparisons with what they learned earlier about animal migration and bring up similarities and differences. The teacher uses only English, but occasional interchanges in Spanish can be heard among the students (mostly quick clarifications). These students spend about 60% of their instructional time learning through Spanish, about 40% through English, and most of them have participated in the two-way program for three years, since kindergarten.

This composite description illustrates a typical day in a Spanish/English two-way immersion program, an increasingly popular educational approach in the United States that holds great potential for contributing to effective pedagogy in multilingual contexts elsewhere. In "two-way" classrooms, students from two different language backgrounds study together and receive content instruction in both groups' native languages. As a result, students have access to native speaker peer resources for second language learning and for interaction in and out of the classroom.

The two-way bilingual immersion approach blends the goals and methodologies of maintenance bilingual education for minority language speakers with language immersion for majority language speakers (in the United States, English language speakers). In the U.S., the largest number of programs operate in Spanish and English in elementary schools (grades kindergarten through six). The students are integrated for most, if not all, of their instruction. The goals of such programs include high levels of academic achievement and high levels of proficiency in both languages for all students as well as positive intergroup relations.

Differences between two-way immersion and bilingual education stem primarily from the class composition and language goals. As they have evolved in the United States, bilingual programs do not typically include native speakers of English, while two-way programs do, making available peer language models and resources during English-medium instruction for language minority students. Heterogeneous classes also help prevent the isolation of language minority students from others in their school and community. Most bilingual programs are transitional; the aim is generally to move into all-English instruction as soon as possible, and native language development is not emphasized. Two-way programs, on the other hand, continue to provide instruction in the native language, even after proficiency in English has developed. In other societies where the majority language is other than English, bilingual programs operate in similar ways, offering a transition from a minority language to the majority Language of instructio n in the schools. …