How full immersion education helps students academically and socially
There are myriad options for parents who want their children to learn a second (or third or fourth) language, from after-school activities and in-school classes to international and bilingual schools. But the most successful way to become proficient in another language is learning through immersion, according to Sharon Huang, founder of HudsonWay Immersion School, a Spanish and Mandarin full-immersion school with campuses in New Jersey and Manhattan.
In an immersion setting, students are taught core subjects in a target language. The most effective model of immersion is full immersion, in which the target language is weighted heavier in the early years, according to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota. This is the model HudsonWay Immersion School follows: 2-year-olds spend 100 percent of their time learning in the target language, 3- and 4-year-olds spend 90 percent of the time learning in the target language, and by the time students reach middle school, 50 percent of the day is spent in the target language. “It’s harder initially, but the benefits are tremendous,” Huang says.
The Benefits of an Immersion Education
“When children are completely immersed in a second language, additional synaptic connections are being made. Children become smarter. They become more flexible, creative thinkers. They become much more aware of other cultures…They become very proficient in the second language,” Huang says. “We try to help parents understand that just because the content is being taught in a second language doesn’t mean their child will be at a disadvantage in English. In fact, immersion students in fifth and eighth grades are shown, in studies, to be ahead of monolingual students.”
Here are the five major benefits of children learning in an immersive, bilingual setting:
Enhanced Critical Thinking
Research has shown that bilingual individuals have higher executive functioning, says Sue Ha, head of school at HWIS—meaning bilingual students are able to focus on the important information and tune out the rest. This likely is the result of the way synapses form in the brain at a young age from learning more than one language, Huang adds.
Because children in immersion programs go back and forth between two (or more) languages, their brains are used to tuning out extraneous information. This boosts kids’ ability to multi-task, their working memory, and their ability to problem solve and analyze things from various vantage points, Ha says.
The amount of time spent talking and learning in a language directly correlates to students’ proficiency in that language. Because all subjects are taught in the target language at an immersion school and the students are likely only speaking English at home, they develop higher levels of bilingualism and biliteracy, Ha says. And once a second language is learned, it’s easier to learn a third and fourth.
Greater Creativity and Cognitive Flexibility
Related to enhanced critical thinking, children in immersion programs are “able to think out-side the box and think creatively because their minds are used to working in different directions,” Huang says. Bilingual students are more inclined to see “that it’s not one size fits all,” Ha adds. For example, Huang says, if you ask a monolingual student for different uses of a paperclip, he may give 10 answers; if you ask a bilingual student the same question, she may give 20 answers.
Acceleration in Math Skills
With Mandarin immersion, in particular, math and numbers are very systematic. For example, the numbers go from one to 10, then 11 is 10+1, 12 is 10+2, 13 is 10+3, and so on, Huang explains. “This enables kids to latch on to addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division very easily,” she says.
Expanded Knowledge of and Empathy for Other Cultures
In an immersive education, students aren’t just developing a high language proficiency and academic intellectual capacities, according to Ha. “Through language, they’re learning culture, and they're learning about various people groups of that language,” she says. “As they learn the language and the culture, they are developing the skills of empathy of looking at things from different perspectives and allowing themselves to really experience that culture.”
Huang cites an experiment in which children were separated into three groups: a white, English-speaking group, a mix of white and Hispanic children, and a mix of white and Hispanic children with the white children actively learning Spanish. “Only in that third group did the white children have positive thoughts about Hispanic children,” Huang says. “I think that experiment and the results from it are very powerful in explaining why learning language is so important for children. It changes how they view another race, and in today’s culture, I think that’s more important than ever.”