Spanish-Language Immersion Schools Gain in Popularity

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Washington, DC -- Andrew Howells, a restaurant consultant in Washington D.C., wishes he would have grown up fully fluent in another language.

"I did not have that opportunity when I was a kid, and I think that learning more languages will open more possibilities for them," he said, speaking of his young daughters Annabelle and Chiarra, who attend LAMB PCS, a Latin American Montessori bilingual public charter school in Washington, D.C.

Howells and his wife Lisette are part of a growing number of families enrolling their children in immersion schools, where half to all the curriculum is taught in a language other than English. There are over 1,000 language immersion schools in the country, according to Julie Sugarman, a researcher at the Center for Applied Linguistics, and the schools are growing in popularity.

Though one might think it's Latino families who are mostly sending their children to Spanish immersion schools, this is not the case.

"We've found that there is a higher demand from non-Spanish speaking families," said Dahlia Aguilar, principal of Mundo Verde, an environment-focused Spanish-language immersion school in Washington D.C.

"Most commonly, the reason is that those families want to make sure their kids get that exposure to the diversity that comes with language immersion. We have over 400 students and the waiting list is 500," Aguilar said.

Students at Mundo Verde, a Spanish-language immersion charter school in Washington, DC.Cherish Pennington

Those who tout immersion schools say fluency in another language gives students the benefit to compete in the global marketplace. Educators like Aguilar say immersion students perform as well or better than non-immersion students on standardized tests in English, have longer attention spans and are better at problem solving. Add that immersion students have a greater understanding and positive attitudes toward other cultures, and it's not a surprise that the educational approach is growing in popularity.

"Our students have a kaleidoscope of backgrounds. Not only do our students have more tools, but they're curious to know other cultures and have an open mind," said Diana Rayas, communications coordinator at Mundo Verde. "When my family travels to another state, my son asks me what language they speak there."

While many of the families embracing Spanish-language immersion schools are non-Hispanic, it's also appealing to Hispanic parents who want to ensure their children learn the language.

"When I was growing up, my father didn't allow Spanish to be spoken at home. So when I visited with (Spanish-speaking) family, we'd have to speak to each other with a made-up sign language," said Mundo Verde development manager Isadora Carreras. “Having a second language will open doors for my daughter and enrich her understanding of the world because she can interact with a larger chunk of the population," Carreras said.

“The sad truth is that, as a country, (the U.S.) never had to learn other languages, but it's a fundamentally different world,” said Marty Abbot, executive director of The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).

Alexandra Nicholson, who is half Venezuelan, said putting her son into Spanish immersion schools would ensure he learn the language properly. "I was raised speaking Spanish and it was easy to maintain because we spoke it at home and we lived in places like Miami," she said. "I'd love to teach my son Spanish, but now it's harder for me to transition between languages. I'm just more comfortable speaking English now. But when he goes to school, I'll reinforce it at home," Nicholson explained.

Mundo Verde's Aguilar said there is less of an achievement gap in immersion schools. In early education, most language schools use full immersion, obviously easier for Spanish speakers. But at that age, kids learn so quickly that the gap between children who speak Spanish at home and those who don't is not very long. There are also dual-immersion schools, which take a 50/50 approach; classes are taught half in English, half in another language. That gives native Spanish speakers a running start at learning the grammatical rules of English.

“It’s a win-win to put the linguistic and cultural majority students together with the linguistic and cultural minority students,” said Michael Bacon, chairman of The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Special Interest Group. For all the students, the challenge of problem solving without translation is a powerful cognitive exercise.

Currently, Spanish immersion schools are the most popular, but other languages are growing in popularity.

“A big trend is the diversification of languages and cultures represented, such as Vietnamese, Russian, Native American languages, Hindi, Arabic, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Italian,” said Bacon. “There will be over 200 Chinese immersion programs in the U.S. in the next year or so with the vast majority starting in the last 4-5 years.”

One of the most proactive states on immersion schools is Utah. Its governor, Gary Herbert said he was inspired by his state's missionaries.

"They would go to other countries and return with knowledge of that language and culture, and I thought that we should take that approach with our secular (areas) like education," said Herbert. "Utah is not local in scope. We're international," he added. "Any observer can see that being bilingual translates to huge advantages in the business marketplace."

Currently, one in five of Utah's elementary schools are language immersion, and the numbers have risen rapidly over the past few years. In 2009, Utah had approximately 1,400 immersion students and 25 immersion schools; 12 of them were Spanish. This year there are 25,000 students and 118 immersion schools, and 63 are Spanish. Half of the state's Spanish immersion students come from households where Spanish is not the native language.

Other states - like Delaware, Minnesota and California - which recently ended its 1998 ban on teaching bilingual classes – are ramping up the number of immersion schools as well.

“The sad truth is that, as a country, (the U.S.) never had to learn other languages, but it's a fundamentally different world,” said Marty Abbott, executive director of The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). “Although knowing more than one language is the norm in other countries, it’s not here, and we have to make sure that all kids have the opportunity to compete in the job market,” she said.

And as U.S. communities become more diverse and business more global and interconnected, bilingual skills are increasingly seen as a plus.

“Today, when parents are asked if they would like their child to speak more than one language," said Abbott, "it is rare to find a parent who would say no."