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Making Language Immersion Fun for the Kids

The Guardian December 27, 2014




It was summer in Tuscany. The rolling hills were adorned with their famous haystacks. The cypress trees were majestically verdant against the golden backdrop. We were in the picturesque Renaissance town Pienza, its spire shooting up into a cloudless sky. I watched as my children boarded a scuolabus with 15 Italian kids they’d never met before. The bus pulled away, heading to a local terra-cotta museum. I looked at the faces of my children — crying, hysterical, their tiny hands banging on the windows. And I was filled with joy.

I should explain.

What brought me to this pocket of Italy for a month, and inspired me to take a leave of absence from work and my husband? I wanted my children to learn Italian. To be clear: I hate watching them cry as much as the next loving, fallible mother. But this was different. These tears — as well as the not insubstantial expense of the endeavor — were collateral damage toward a larger, longer-term goal.

My daughter is 5, my son is 3, and conventional wisdom — along with annals of scientific studies — suggests the sooner you learn a language, the easier it is. In recent months, the voice inside my head had started to sound like a ticking clock.

“Bilinguals have a stronger executive control system in the brain, which allows them to selectively focus on what is necessary and not get distracted,” said Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, referring to the neurological system that is responsible for concentration. “Both languages are always active in the bilingual brain; if you are speaking one language you have to prevent the other one from intruding and causing errors."

And there’s this: “Nothing predicts academic success as well as the executive control system,” Dr. Bialystok said.

But I also want my children to be true citizens of the world in a way that I have never been, even as a travel writer — I’m not bilingual. I want their comfort zones to be measured in time zones. And so last winter, before their summer in Tuscany, I decided to enroll them in an immersion school.

If language immersion programs have a godfather, it is Fabrice Jaumont, Ph.D., the education attaché for the French Embassy in New York, who is widely credited with expanding these programs in public schools.

“I want a revolution,” Dr. Jaumont told me over coffee last spring. “I am French, and France is a country of revolutionaries.”

That this revolution happens in public schools is very intentional. “Why should bilingualism be a privilege of the rich?” Dr. Jaumont said. “When I started in 2001, second language education was only in private schools. The first public school to adopt an immersion program was P.S. 58 in Brooklyn.”

P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens was the school my children were zoned for. This wasn’t a coincidence, but in fact a highly calculated move.

But even best laid plans. ­ . . . In New York City, acceptance into a Dual Language Program, or D.L.P., is by lottery at the Department of Education. Not only did my daughter not get in, but she was also at the bottom of the wait-list. Here’s my advice to anyone whose scheme includes winning a lottery: Have a backup plan.

That’s when I learned about a magical place called the International School of Brooklyn, or I.S.B., an International Baccalaureate World School that offers full immersion in French and Spanish. “There’s a difference between learning a language and acquiring a language,” said Rebecca Skinner, the head of I.S.B. “Our students learn Celsius and Fahrenheit, meters and feet. We teach them to be bicultural.”

The way I saw it, it was akin to being in school in Marseilles or Madrid. And last spring, I found myself in Ms. Skinner’s office, a bright, cheery place where the sounds of Spanish, French and — to my ears anyway — happiness and opportunity drifted in from the classrooms.

“A generation of people grew up thinking there was a stigma to a second language, so they focused on learning English,” Ms. Skinner said. “Now people see that as a missed opportunity.”

There was just one problem. The application was due months before (around the time we were planning on winning a space in the D.L.P.). We had missed the boat.

A future conversation filled me with dread: “Sorry you have inferior executive control systems, kids. Mommy missed the deadline.”

So I switched my focus from September through May to June through August: Summer camp.

One of the most rigorous is Middlebury Monterey Language Academy in Vermont, which has programs in Spanish, French, Chinese, German and Arabic. But there was an asterisk: It is for middle and high school students only.

In Minnesota, Concordia Language Villages offers programs in 15 languages. “Each language has its own village,” said Patricia Thorton, the dean of program. “Kids eat the food of that culture, change their dollars for local currency; they’re completely immersed.” Concordia accepts children as young as 7, which made it a great option — in a few years.

In the meantime, I aimed closer. I focused on Hands on World, a language-immersion preschool in Brooklyn with camps in French, Spanish and Italian.

“Young children have no voice that says ‘you can’t,’ ” said Felicity Miller, the founder. “As soon as they’re prepubescent, they are self-conscious, the idea of making mistakes is harder. And if you are going to learn a language, you are going to make mistakes."

I signed my children up and off they marched every day for Italian class — a mini-step. That’s when I spoke to a friend in Italy. “Why not put the kids in day camp here?” she asked.

Hours after I dropped them off on the bus of tears, I was back in the same parking lot, watching the scuolabus return. My kids bounced off, clutching their lunchboxes and giggling with the other children. They were beaming.

My son got right to the point. “Mama, next time we go to Italian camp, can we do it in English?”

By the end of summer, they actually understood Italian. We’ll do some version of it again next summer. And if the language doesn’t stick, there’s always one last option available: a whole school year in, say, Bologna.

After all, we’re doing it for the children.

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