Why Immersion?

Why Immersion?

What is an immersion school?

Modeled after the pioneering French immersion programs developed in Canada in the 1960s, foreign language immersion schools in the United States are designed to enrich the education of native-English-speaking students by teaching them all of their academic subjects in a second language. The goal is for students to become proficient in the second language and develop increased cultural awareness while reaching a high level of academic achievement. Students develop proficiency in the second language by hearing and using it to learn all of their school subjects rather than by studying the language itself.

For more information about immersion programs, check out New York private school Hudson Way‘s video explaining an immersion education.

How does an immersion school work?

In foreign language immersion programs, the regular school curriculum is taught in the immersion language for at least half of the school day. In partial immersion programs, instructional time is divided equally between English and the immersion language throughout the elementary grades. In full immersion programs, teachers use no English at all in the early grades. In Grade 2, 3, or 4, teachers introduce English language arts and reading for one period per day and gradually move toward an even distribution of English and the immersion language by Grade 5 or 6.

Frontiers Academy begins English Language Arts in preschool so our students maintain a solid English Foundation.

Why should I consider enrolling my child in an immersion program?

Immersion programs are the fastest growing and most effective type of foreign language program currently available in U.S. schools. Most immersion students can be expected to reach higher levels of second language proficiency than students in other school-based language programs. (Met, M. (Ed.). (1998). Critical issues in early second language learning. New York: Scott Foresman—Addison Wesley). Becoming bilingual opens the door to communication with more people in more places, and many parents want to provide their children with skills to interact competently in an increasingly interdependent world community.

In addition to reaping the social and economic advantages of bilingualism, immersion learners benefit cognitively, exhibiting greater nonverbal problem-solving abilities and more flexible thinking (see reviews in Met, 1998). It has been suggested that the very processes learners need to use to make sense of the teacher’s meaning make them pay closer attention and think harder. These processes, in turn, appear to have a positive effect on cognitive development.

From the standpoint of academic achievement, over three decades of studies consistently show that immersion students achieve as well as or better than non-immersion peers on standardized measures of verbal and mathematics skills administered in English (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000; Genesee, 1987).

For more information about the positive effects of an immersion program on your child, read this article from Harvard Business Review about creating global leaders.

What are the benefits of an immersion school?

Cognitive Advantages:

  • Bilingualism increases mental flexibility for children
  • Bilingual children are more willing and able to learn a third language
  • Bilingual children score higher on verbal standardized tests conducted in English
  • Bilingual children also perform better in math and have stronger logic skills

In 1962, Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert at McGill University in Montreal found that the ability to speak two languages when controlling for other factors that might also affect performance such as socioeconomic status and education, and that bilinguals outperformed monolinguals in 15 verbal and nonverbal tests.

In recent years, the benefits of bilingualism has received more attention from researchers. Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, found one of these advantages while asking children to spot whether various sentences were grammatically correct. Both monolinguals and bilinguals could see the mistake in phrases such as “apples growed on trees,” but differences arose when they considered nonsensical sentences such as “apples grow on noses.” The monolinguals, flummoxed by the silliness of the phrase, incorrectly reported a grammar error, whereas the bilinguals did not.

Bialystok suspected that rather than reflecting expertise in grammar, the bilinguals’ performance demonstrated improvement in the brain’s executive system, a broad suite of mental skills that center on the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on a task at hand. In this case, the bilinguals were better able to focus on the grammar while ignoring the meaning of the words. In subsequent studies, bilingual children aced a range of problems that directly tested their grammatical strength.

There is a correlation between young children’s second language development and the development of print awareness.

Bialystok, E. (1997). Effects of bilingualism and biliteracy on children’s emerging concepts of print. Developmental Psychology, 33(3), 429-440. from PsycINFO database.

Three groups of 4- and 5-year-old children were examined for their concepts of how print refers to language. All the children could identify printed letters and their sounds but not read alone. The groups studied were monolingual speakers of English, bilingual speakers of French and English, and bilingual speakers of Chinese (Mandarin) and English.

Bilingual children were equally proficient in both languages and were familiar with print and storybooks in both languages. The tasks assessed children’s understanding of the general correspondence between print and language in which the printed form represents a word and the specific correspondence between a constituent of print and one of language that determines representation in a given writing system. The general correspondence relation applies to all writing systems, but the specific correspondence relation changes for different kinds of writing systems. Bilingual children understood better than monolingual children the general symbolic representation of print. The older Chinese-English bilingual children also showed advanced understanding of the specific correspondence relations in English print.

There is a correlation between second language learning and increased linguistic awareness.

Demont, E. (2001). Contribution of early 2nd-language learning to the development of linguistic awareness and learning to read. International Journal of Psychology, 36(4), 274-285. from PsycINFO database

This study aimed to validate the effects of second language learning on children’s linguistic awareness. More particularly, it examined whether a bilingual background improves the ability to manipulate morpho-syntactic structure. The study postulated that children who received a precocious learning of two languages (French-German) may develop enhanced awareness and control of syntactic structure since they need an appropriate syntactic repertoire in each language. In return, these children will gain access to the written language with more ease. The results showed an advantage for the children who attended bilingual classes since kindergarten: they were better at grammatical judgment and correction tasks and word recognition.

There is a correlation between language learning and students’ ability to hypothesize in science.

Kessler, C., & Quinn, M. E. (1980). Positive effects of bilingualism on Science problem-solving abilities. In J. Alatis (Ed.), Georgetown University round table on languages and linguistics (pp. 295-308). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, from Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts database.

Examined are the consequences of bilingualism on children’s ability to formulate scientific hypotheses or solutions to science problems and interactions of this ability with aspects of linguistic competence. Experimental group treatment consisted of twelve science inquiry film sessions and six discussion sessions, all taught by the same teacher in English.

The quality of scientific hypotheses and the complexity of the language used to express them were found to be significantly higher for both experimental groups than for the control groups. However, the bilingual children, given the same instruction by the same teacher in formulating scientific hypotheses, consistently outperformed monolingual children both in the quality of hypotheses generated and in the syntactic complexity of the written language.

One implication is that a well-organized bilingual program where children develop in two linguistic perspectives can make the positive interactions of cognitive functioning and language development more fully operative.

Why should my child learn Mandarin Chinese?

The world’s economies and cultures are becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent. The ability to communicate across national and linguistic boundaries will be more essential than ever. Mandarin, English, and Spanish are the three most spoken languages in the world. In addition, China is becoming an increasingly influential player on the global stage.

Mandarin is the first language of 867 million people and the second language of another 178 million, for a total of about 1 billion speakers worldwide. It is the national language of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. It is considered an important “world language” by the United States State Department and Department of Defense, both of which fund Chinese language programs at primary, secondary and graduate schools around the United States with the aim of increasing the number of fully bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural Americans. The U.S. State Department’s National Security Language Initiative also encourages the study of Chinese.

What are simplified or traditional Chinese characters?

There are two kinds of Chinese characters: simplified and traditional. China instituted simplified characters which are mostly derived from commonly-used handwriting shortcuts, beginning in the 1950s. Most characters are the same, but there are some differences. There are about 6,500 commonly used Chinese characters, of which only about 2,200 are different in terms of simplified or traditional forms.

Frontiers Academy teaches simplified characters, as simplified characters are much more prevalent throughout the world and are used by the population of mainland China and an increasing number of people in other global Chinese communities. In addition, the vast majority of written Chinese materials in print or on the Internet use simplified characters. Thus, learning and mastering simplified characters first enables our students to be able to effectively communicate with more people and improves literacy among students.

Why does Frontiers Academy use a full immersion model and not a 50/50 model?

Frontiers Academy employs the “full immersion” model.  The near full immersion model has been shown to create higher levels of trilingualism.

Further, simply adding more English instructional time does not yield higher outcomes in achievement measured in English for English language learners. (See next FAQ)

If my child is in a Mandarin immersion school, will they fall behind their peers in English or other subjects?

The answer at Frontiers Academy is NO! Your child will have English Language Arts every day starting in preschool.

Parents with children in an immersion school are commonly concerned as to whether their child is at the same level of proficiency in English reading and writing as students in non-immersion schools. Although some kindergarteners or first graders in Mandarin immersion programs may not be at the same level in English as their general education peers, typically by the second or third grade they will be at or above that level and will also read, write, and speak Mandarin. (Genesee, F. (1987). Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion and bilingual education. Rowley, MA: Newbury).

Moreover, research shows that immersion actually reinforces and enhances English language development in the long term. (Cloud, N. Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E. (2000). Dual language instruction: A handbook for enriched education. Boston: Heinle & Heinlet).

If adding more English time did produce higher test scores, then 50/50 programs should promote higher scores for students. However, in a study done by Kathryn Lindholm-Leary, Ph.D. of San Jose State University, she found that there are either no differences or an advantage for students in 90:10 in examining reading and math scores in English with both norm-referenced (CAT6) and criterion-referenced (CST) tests. In the long run, partial immersion does not produce better English language achievement than total immersion. (Campbell, R.N., Gray, T.C., Rhodes, N.C., Snow, M.A. (1985). Foreign language learning in the elementary schools: A comparison of three language programs. Modern Language Journal, 69(1), p 44-54).

For those with more questions, we suggest you read Struggling Learners and Language Immersion Education: Research-based, Practitioner-informed Responses to Educators’ Top Questions, which is available from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition. Ordering information is available from http://www.carla.umn.edu/immersion/learners.html.


Will my child become proficient in the second language? How long will that take?

After only 2 or 3 years in an immersion program, students demonstrate fluency and confidence when using the immersion language, and their listening and reading skills are comparable to those of native speakers of the same age. However, given the complexity of learning Mandarin, and the fact that students do not live in a predominantly Chinese-speaking world, students will become fluent speakers of Mandarin but will not be at the same level as students of the same age in China.

The goal of Frontiers Academy is to provide its sixth-grade students with proficiency in Mandarin equivalent to a fifth grade level in China. At this level, students will be able to read a Chinese newspaper and converse confidently in Mandarin.

We speak Mandarin at home; why does my child need to go to a Mandarin immersion school?

Even if a language is spoken at home, most children regress or even stop speaking Mandarin as they develop socially and academically in an English environment. Immersion is important in language retention because the child learns and interacts with peers in the language. Furthermore, fluency in reading and writing Chinese is extremely difficult to accomplish without intensive academic training.

We don’t speak any Mandarin at home; how can I support my child’s learning?

A school can only be successful with the support of dedicated parents. We value parent interest and desire to be a part of the children’s learning. Being a language immersion school, we anticipate that most families will not speak the language taught in school. With this in mind, the school sets expectations about curriculum before the school year and communicates regularly with parents about classroom activities and homework. We also have an after-school homework club where students can get extra help from teachers.

Why should my child start learning a foreign language at a young age?

The earlier a child is introduced to a language, the greater the likelihood they will become truly proficient in it. Children’s brains are naturally programmed to learn any language they are sufficiently exposed to perfectly and without accent. This ability declines with age.

Recent technological developments in neuroscience include functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a form of brain imaging that peers inside the brains of babies as they sit on their parents’ laps and allows researchers to watch young brains in their initial encounters with language. Using this technique, researchers have discovered a profound difference between babies brought up speaking one language and those who spoke two.

Do students in Mandarin immersion learn the same things children learn in non-immersion schools?

Yes. Many subjects such as math and science are universal and can be taught just as easily in Mandarin as in English. For instance, a math word problem in English asking a student to find a sum or product for an equation can be read by the student in Mandarin and solved the same way it would be done in English.

Our faculty have in some cases painstakingly translated English-language materials into Chinese so that the students are being taught the same subjects and material they would be taught in an advanced academic non-immersion school. Some subjects, such as American literature, are taught exclusively in English.

How can my child learn in Mandarin?

Your child’s homeroom teacher will speak only Mandarin to your child from the day he or she arrives in kindergarten. Their English teacher, whom they will have for one class a day, will speak English to them. While it is confusing for the kids at first, they quickly get the hang of it. All the teachers are warm, loving, and patient. They use songs, body language, exaggerated facial expressions, hands-on activities, intonation, and drawing to help children understand what they are saying. Instruction is carefully designed so students can understand what is being taught.

Will my child have difficulty competing with native Mandarin students?

Generally, no. The Frontiers Academy immersion program is designed to challenge your child’s academic ability. The students are not being taught Mandarin as they are being taught in Mandarin. While native speakers may be verbally fluent, most children do not enter kindergarten reading and writing Chinese, so the task of gaining literacy in both English and Mandarin, combined with the other math and science curriculum, is designed to maintain an equal playing field for all students.

Isn’t Mandarin hard to learn?

It is no harder for a child to learn to speak Mandarin than to learn to speak any other language given that they start at an early age. However, it is a difficult language to learn to write. Research and years of experience by the State Department training diplomats indicates that it takes two to three times longer to master the Mandarin language, written and spoken, compared to languages with phonetic alphabets.

Can I really help my kids with their Chinese homework if I don’t speak Chinese?

Although we expect most of the learning to occur at school, parental involvement at home is extremely beneficial. As many of the subjects are translated from English to Mandarin, parents can access online dictionaries (i.e., YellowBridge.com) to understand the homework and provide assistance and encouragement to their children.

Can my child truly become fluent in a language we don’t speak at home?

Yes. Children the world over do it routinely. It generally takes three to five years to develop written and oral proficiency in the new language. Typically children soak up the language in the first two years. You’ll notice that they will understand more than they speak. By the second grade, teachers will encourage students to speak more in the target language until it becomes more natural.

Non-Chinese speaking families have to make a concerted effort to find their kids Mandarin videos, books and games. Watching Chinese movies, listening to the Mandarin pop music, reading Chinese books or playing Chinese word games on the computer are all available means.

My child claims she understands what the teacher is saying, but she can’t explain it to me. Does she really know what’s going on?

Yes. Remember, receptive and active language (understanding versus being able to translate) are two very different skills. Think of your child when she was a year-and-a-half-old. You could tell her to go to her room and get a red stuffed animal and bring it back to you, and she could do everything you asked, even though she couldn’t say more than a few words. The beginning of immersion is like that. The children understand what they are being told to do (watch it in action in the classroom) but they cannot yet translate it into English.

What can I expect when school starts?

When your child first begins at an immersion school, he or she may be confused or frustrated. This transition phase is common among first-time immersion learners and generally lasts from two weeks to two months. Children are generally very resilient and will soon feel comfortable in the new language.

(This list is compiled from a variety of sources including the work of Tara W. Fortune, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota, Diane J. Tedick, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Minnesota, FAQs from the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council by Beth Weise, and other sources cited throughout.)

Frontiers Academy - Advanced Academic Language Immersion School