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The Debate Rages On While Children Still Learn and Play

Dec 25, 2007
Parents look at me with confusion on their faces or call me with anxiety in their voices. They all wonder if they are doing the right thing. Many are on waiting lists to be have their child participate in a dual immersion program at a local magnet school, while others fork over hundreds and hundreds of dollars to have their toddler attend language immersion classes once a week. The problem is that these families represent a very small percentage of our United States population.

How many of you are able to afford hundreds of dollars for a weekly Spanish class for your child? How long is that waiting list for the immersion or dual immersion program at your local magnet school? Do a lot of your neighbors and colleagues have the same opportunity as you? The answers to these and other questions surrounding our feeble attempt to bring early language learning into the picture of this great nation are weak, feeble and show a clear lack of direction.

Research continues to conclude that bilingual education can and does provide children with a strong foundation in acquiring second language skills while increasing their proficiency in reading and math. (Dr. Bialystok, York University, 2001) In fact, Colin Baker, in his book titled Policy and Practice in Bilingual Education, speaks directly to the fact that bilingual education can work in the school systems and will result in meaningful instruction with successful language acquisition.

With that being said, could we get real here? There is absolutely no way our country of the United States of America will ever make the funds available to create the opportunity for immersion programs to be set up at every public elementary school starting next school year. My own daughter had physical education cut last year in her public school classroom. This year, they have teacher-directed PE three times a week. That sounds to me like what we used to call recess. All of us here about budget cuts here and not enough funds there. The harsh reality is that our country will never do what many other countries have been doing and continue to do to provide early language learning for their citizens.

Let us pretend for a fleeting moment that they did allot the funding (that is like dreaming for the salaries of teachers to finally be commiserate with doctors), then what? Where would they find enough bilingual teachers to instruct in all of these immersion programs across the country? The answer is nowhere. Statistics show that the United States does not have the pool of educators needed to implement nation wide immersion programs at any level. Can anyone say outsourcing? I do not know about you, but I am trying my best to support products, services and ideas that keep the jobs here in the US.

The last point that needs to be brought up in regards to this immersion vs. bilingual education debate is the most important one in my eyes. It is a common sense approach, a very easy to understand perspective and a view that involves the heart as well as the mind. Pretend you are a very young child again. Go ahead. Close your eyes for a moment (then open them back up to continue reading!). Your parents ramble on and on about objects in your home, and you learn the words for each item as you develop from an infant into a toddler. Your siblings also get involved in the family fun, and roll a ball at you, instructing you to roll the ball back. Here comes natural language learning!

Did you know that most language experts, linguists, agree that it is just as easy to learn two words for an object as it is to learn only one when you are in these early and formative years? That means your brother could easily toss in his limited knowledge of a second language from his middle school Spanish class and tell you pelota (pay-low-tah) while rolling the ball and also saying ball. Or at the dinner table, with you in your high chair, your family is using the words thank you followed by gracias (grah-see-ahs) as they pass one another food. These are all examples of introducing a new language in a bilingual format. There exists a seamless flow back and forth between the native language and the target language.

How much more realistic is this type of instruction for the stay at home mom, the preschool teacher, the family child care provider and the homeschooling parent? Tons! Even if you do not speak one word of French, you could easily grasp command of a few simply vocabulary words a week and introduce them to your baby. Or say you do not recall a lot of your high school Spanish (just enough to be dangerous at a bar in Mexico!); I bet you could easily bring a few words a day into your home and the life of your children by using this technique. You make the commitment, and you could easily change the course of direction in regards to the cognitive development of your child.

Resources are everywhere, and many of them are free. Yes, you heard me correctly. F-R-E-E!!! Simply conduct a search on the internet by plugging in the target language you want to introduce to your child. You will pull up thousands of results, and your job is now to sift through them and find what will make your child tick. Language cards, music CDs, DVDs, board books and more abound in the world of language learning. And the best thing is many of these resources are truly presented in a bilingual format.

So, while the debate between immersion vs. bilingual education rages on, do not get caught up in the frenzy and waste valuable time during the window of opportunity your child is experiencing when it comes to learning a second language. Make the most of the first five years of life as Dr. John Mike compels us to in his book Brilliant Babies Powerful Adults and give your children the opportunity to travel successfully in this very global society in which they are growing up.
About the Author
Beth Butler is the founder of the Boca Beth Program - a fun and easy way to introduce Spanish to young children. Scoop your child up on your lap and listen in for free samples of her bilingual music now.
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