The benefits of language immersion
As an immigrant from Asia and a physician specializing in children's mental health, I experienced first-hand the benefit of multilingual exposure at an early age. I am now fluent in three languages. I believe language immersion is one of the most effective ways of stimulating cognitive growth, and promoting cultural awareness and tolerance. It benefits children academically and gives them an advantage in their future job opportunities.
Extensive research data support the neurocognitive benefit of dual language immersion. Children who are exposed to a second language early on are found to have better selective attention, problem solving skills, executive function, inhibitory control and greater mental flexibility. Bilingual children tend to have better language skills in their primary language. They also perform at higher level in math and science compared to students in monolingual classrooms. Many believe that such immersive experience is exponentially more valuable than typical language coursework offered later in junior high and high school, as younger children have greater neuroplasticity.
Language immersion does not only strengthen neural pathways and academic performance, but also builds bridges between people of different backgrounds. Language immersion provides the opportunity for children to learn about other cultures on a deeper level, increasing cultural awareness, sensitivity and tolerance. It teaches the child to see how language shapes people's way of thinking and behavior, so they develop an empathetic lens.
Because of their well-recognized neurocognitive and academic benefits, language immersion programs are gaining popularity across U.S. For example, Portland Public Schools (PPS) has served as a pioneer for Oregon school districts in its expansive language immersion program. PPS currently offers five languages immersion programs and is proposing a sixth. A recent study was published in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (EEPA) based on the PPS data. This study highlighted that dual language immersion programs in PPS are "cost-effective and result in positive academic gain for students" (Colón, 2018). In comparison, Lake Oswego School District (LOSD) is far behind, which puts our students at a disadvantage. Currently, LOSD only offers one Spanish class each year and many families are turned away because of its limited capacity.
While all language immersion is valuable, learning Chinese offers native English speakers some unique benefits. First of all, its unique tonal pronunciation system and semi-pictographic writing system can help stimulate visual and auditory areas that are more difficult to develop at a later age. Secondly, with the growing economic relationship between the U.S. and China, mastery of the most widely spoken language in the world that happens to be spoken in one of the fastest growing economies can offer broader career options. Thirdly, it would provide an additional language option to current language immersion program to include both European and Asian lang-
I believe that language immersion is one of the greatest and most long-lasting educational gifts we can provide to early learners. It aligns with the district's mission of fostering critical thinkers and global citizens. Expansion of language immersion will be an important next step to deepen the LOSD's commitment of "diversity, equity, and inclusion" into practical programing, and extending its benefit to many families who would have otherwise turned elsewhere for the opportunity.
Reference: Colón, I. T. (2018, September 28). New Study Examines Costs of Dual Language Immersion Programs. Retrieved April 28, 2019, from https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/new-study-examines-costs-dual-language-immersion-programs/
Mini Zhang is a Lake Oswego resident.
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