Your Guide to Understanding Dual Language Immersion Schools

Many parents understand the value of a bilingual education — and lament the shortcomings of their own foreign language instruction. Learn from a Noodle expert why dual language immersion programs may be the best choice.

Kristin Epstein looks on in amazement and pride as her 9-year-old daughter does homework while chatting fluently in Chinese to her best friend. The girls attend YingHua International School (YHIS), a private, dual language immersion school in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ms. Epstein, who also happens to be the executive director of YHIS, has no background in Mandarin Chinese, yet her daughter became a fluent speaker after spending just one year at the school.

What is a Dual Language Immersion (DLI) School?

Dual language immersion, sometimes known as "two-way immersion," is defined by the Center for Applied Linguistics as "a type of dual-language education where two languages are used for instruction: English and a partner language."

Programs usually enroll roughly the same number of native English speakers and native speakers of the partner language. At Yinghua, roughly one third of the class consists of students of non-Chinese origin; the remaining students may have one or both Chinese parents. Student groups are integrated so that each child becomes a second language learner for part of the time.

By contrast, foreign language instruction in non-immersion schools usually takes place for one to five hours per week and consists only of language study. DLI students study language arts and other academic content, such as math, science, social studies — even gym and art in both languages.

How Programs are Structured

DLI schools structure their programs differently; some, like YingHua, start with full immersion in Chinese in pre-K and kindergarten, and slowly increase English instruction in one or more subjects as children get older, until both languages are used equally (or a "50/50 model") in fifth grade and middle school.

Others, such as Community Park School in New Jersey's Princeton Regional school district, provide half of each day's instruction in Spanish and the other half in English from the earliest grades. This new Community Park program will be offered as an option to students who are beginning kindergarten and first grade in the 2015-2016 school year.

Most DLI programs start in preschool, kindergarten, or first grade. The programs are introduced incrementally, beginning at the lowest grade and adding additional class levels as the original group moves to the next grade. While schools sometimes allow new admissions directly into upper grades, these students may have to take a proficiency test to demonstrate their ability to keep up with the coursework.

At present, there are over 2,000 DLI public and charter schools across the country, and the number is growing. Utah serves as a model for the rest of the country; 20 percent of the state's public schools offer K-12 DLI, with half of daily instruction in English and the other half in French, Spanish, Mandarin, or Portuguese.

How Partner Languages are Chosen

The usefulness of a language

In recent years, the emergence of China as a business force has increased the popularity of Mandarin Chinese. With over one billion people speaking it worldwide, Mandarin is the language used by more native and second language speakers than any other.

Similarly, although fewer people speak it, Spanish is the official language of 44 countries. And learning Spanish makes it easier to tackle other Romance languages, such as Italian, French, or Portuguese.

The community makeup

A community's immigrant and ethnic population can affect the choice of languages offered in local schools. In Flagstaff, Arizona, the bilingual magnet school offers dual language immersion in the Navajo and Hopi languages, allowing students to connect with and keep alive their native traditional cultures.

Benefits of Dual Language Immersion

Promotes multilingualism

DLI offers a wide range of benefits to students, families, and schools. These programs provide enriching educational experiences and help to support diverse communities. They foster intergenerational, as well as international, ties for families, travelers, and professionals. Fluency in one or more languages leads to future learning and employment opportunities for students.

Many states now promote bilingualism among K-12 students through a special seal of recognition on the high school diplomas of those who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages.

Enhances cognitive skills

Studies show that bilinguals make better use of "executive control" brain functions. Bilingualism can also delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in adults.

Improves academic performance

In a three-year analysis between 2007 and 2010, researchers from George Mason University sought to compare North Carolina's DLI students' achievement to their non-dual language counterparts. By fourth grade, the authors found that DLI students scored statistically higher on end-of-year reading and math assessments. By fifth grade, the DLI students' achievements were a grade beyond their non-dual language peers.

Closes the achievement gap

The George Mason study found that the children who benefited most from DLI programs were English Language Learners (ELL) and African-American students. In both groups, dual language students performed better in math and reading. Teachers also reported that student engagement was much higher among bilingual African-American students.

Increases second language proficiency

Adriana Vargas, a native of Brazil, has a son and a daughter who studied for four years at the French American School of Princeton. Since birth, the children have been raised with their native Portuguese at home. At school, they were immersed in French and English. When the family moved to Florida last year, the kids passed placement tests in English with ease at their new school. The transition went smoothly with only a little extra coaching in math, even though they are no longer in a DLI program.

Encourages global citizenship

Learning a new language promotes better understanding and respect for new cultures. At YingHua, students are introduced to reading Chinese classics in higher grades. When children move to the next grade at the end of each year, they serve their teachers with tea in a "moving up ceremony" as a traditional sign of respect. With such fluency in both languages and culture, students are better prepared to collaborate with international colleagues when they join the workforce.

Learn more about why you should teach your kids global awareness.

Costs of Successful DLI Programs

In order to implement successful programs, DLI schools incur additional costs compared to non-dual language schools.

Teacher training

It can be difficult to find DLI-trained teachers in the U.S., and schools may need to hire foreign educators. Recruiting from abroad can often introduce complications related to visa requirements and the length of time teachers are eligible to stay in the country.

Strong partnerships

YingHua School conducts regular parent education sessions to explain the curriculum, as well as to provide parents with opportunities to pose questions and discuss how to effectively support their children's learning at home. The school provides homework help through its after-school programs, CD-ROMs, textbooks, and clear communication between teachers and parents. Particularly complicated homework assignments may even be accompanied by written guidance and models of completed assignments.

Cost of materials

Introducing a bilingual immersion program requires specialized curricular materials, library books, CDs, posters, and other learning supports that need to be available in both languages. As with other private schools, tuition at independent DLI schools can be high, though many of these institutions offer financial aid to families with demonstrated need.

If this applies to you, check out Noodle's expert advice about paying for private school.

Public and charter DLI programs are free to eligible families, typically those who live within the school's geographic boundaries. Some, however, may have special application requirements.

How to Find a DLI School

To locate public or charter schools with a dual immersion program, you can check with your state's department of education. Some states like Utah and California maintain a directory of dual immersion schools listed by language pairing on the site. Independently maintained directories for dual immersion schools in various cities and states can also be found by searching online.

Unfortunately, there are no separate directories available for private DLI schools, but you can search Noodle for private schools in your area.

Sources:

Academics and Curriculum (2015). Retrieved February 16, 2015 from French American School of Princeton.

(n.d.). Retrieved February 10, 2015, from BBC Languages.

Bhattacharjee, Y, Why Bilinguals are Smarter (March 17, 2012). Retrieved February 16, 2015 from The New York Times.

California Two-Way Immersion Programs Directory. Retrieved February 16, 2015 from California Department of Education.

Immersion at YHIS (2015). Retrieved February 16, 2015 from YingHua International School.

Maxwell, L, More States Supporting Bilingualism With Special Seals on Diplomas (July 8, 2014). Retrieved February 16, 2015 from Education Week.

Maxwell, L, School Successes Inspire N.C. push for Dual Language (October 15, 2014). Retrieved February 16, 2015 from Education Week.

Resources for Two-Way Immersion and Dual Language Practitioners. Retrieved February 16, 2015 from Center for Applied Linguistics.

Teaching and Learning Dual Language Immersion. Retrieved February 16, 2015 from Utah State Office of Education.

The 2015-2016 Dual Language Immersion Program at Community Park. Retrieved February 16, 2015 from Princeton Public Schools.

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