Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Language Immersion Programs for Young Children? Yes ... but Proceed with Caution: Young Children Can Benefit from Dual-Language Immersion Programs That Are Developmentally Appropriate

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Language Immersion Programs for Young Children? Yes ... but Proceed with Caution: Young Children Can Benefit from Dual-Language Immersion Programs That Are Developmentally Appropriate

Article excerpt

"Are you full?" five-year-old Qin Bin asks his classmate following lunch time.

"Yes, I am very, very, very, very, very, VERY full," Nora laughs.

"That's wrong. That's too many 'verys,'" Qin Bin responds seriously. "When you are that full, you should say 'I'm extremely full,' not very, very, very, very full."

"No," counters Nora. "I am going to say I am REALLY full!"

While this sounds like the ordinary bantering and language play that goes on in lots of kindergarten classrooms, this conversation is extraordinary because neither child spoke any English until two years ago. Even more striking is that both Qin Bin and Nora could just as easily have this same conversation in Mandarin, a language spoken only by Qin Bin at the beginning of the school year.

Coming from more than 25 different nationalities, many students attending 3e International in Beijing, China, speak neither English nor Mandarin when entering this dual-immersion program. Within a year, they're usually able to communicate conversationally with others in both languages. By 1st and 2nd grade, children who entered as preschoolers can understand academic language and read and write in both languages as well.

3e is an independent international school that is supported by the Choi Koon Shum Foundation in Hong Kong. It is the only dual immersion program in Beijing and one of a few in the world using a Western approach to the teaching of Mandarin and English.

The expansion of the global economy is transforming education worldwide. Providing second language experiences and knowledge about other cultures is key to any country's ability to remain competitive and increasingly recognized as critical to economic success, national security, and international relations (Rhodes and Pufahl 2009). Questions remain, however, about how early and exactly how best to do this. How much do children benefit from acquiring new languages in the earliest years? Is it true that they absorb second languages almost effortlessly? Does learning one or more new languages compromise development of a child's primary language as well as the newly acquired languages? And what are the requirements of high-quality language immersion programs if young children are to succeed academically and socially?


Now in its fifth year, 3e International enrolls children as young as age two through 3rd grade and has been adding one grade of instruction per year. Children in the nursery classes have Mandarin and English teachers providing learning experiences in both languages in the same context. However, beginning at age three through the preschool and elementary programs, children spend three hours per day in English and another three hours per day in Mandarin. Children move from one language immersion environment in the morning to a fully different one in the afternoon, attending school from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Classes have no more than 16 students in order to optimize adult-child interaction and language building.

The curriculum, which was designed specifically for 3e, outlines standards for cognitive development; creative arts; global, cultural, and social studies; English and Mandarin language arts; intrapersonal and interpersonal knowledge; and physical development. In the English classroom, students learn English language arts plus science, mathematics, technology, and visual arts. In the Chinese classroom, children turn their focus to Mandarin language arts, global studies, performing arts, and physical education. Both classrooms use a "Western" instructional approach to early education consistent with guidelines from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Teachers combine child-initiated and teacher-directed activities that are thoughtfully connected to the stated curriculum outcomes. Chinese and English teachers have time every week to plan together so that children experience complementary themes and activities across classrooms. …

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