Immigration and Foreign Language Instruction

Native Speakers and Immersion Programs

Due to the influx of Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and French-speaking immigrants in the United States, foreign language education has undergone a shift.

There are now more native speakers than ever either visiting or teaching (full-time or part-time) in U.S. K-12 classrooms. In addition, dual-language and immersion programs taught by native speakers are becoming increasingly common in both private and public schools. As is expected, the type of immersion programs offered varies by state and city and is largely dependent on the native speaker and/or immigrant population of each region.

Not only are more schools offering Spanish courses (at times to the detriment of other languages), but the number of native Spanish speakers in K-12 classrooms has increased over the last 15 years. As such, it has become easier for world language instructors (native and non-native speakers) to integrate more culturally authentic material into the classroom and provide opportunities for students to interact with native Spanish speakers (from a variety of cultural backgrounds) on a regular basis.

Asian language classes, such as Mandarin, Korean and Japanese, have seen an influx in registration and increased offerings over the past ten years as well. This is due to a combination of Asian immigration to the United States as well as the perceived importance of becoming proficient in one of these languages in order to thrive in a global marketplace. Also of note is the influence of native French speakers from Europe and West Africa on language instruction in K-12 schools. There are more native speakers from Francophone countries around the world teaching in U.S. K-12 and post-secondary language classrooms than ever before.

Curriculum Shifts for Language Courses

In terms of curricular shifts, more and more language courses are including units on U.S. immigration, addressing themes such as cultural differences, stereotypes, and politics all within the target language. One of the more recent American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) K-12 National Standards for Foreign Language Education is “Communities: Participate in Multilingual Communities at Home & Around the World, which requires that teachers and students make linguistic and cultural with members of their community, preferably native speakers. This is meant not only for students to be able to practice their language skills, but also to introduce them, through interactions in the target language, to different cultural practices of immigrant communities in their city or state.

First Language Immersion Programs

The first language immersion programs in the U.S. were only offered in Spanish and began in the 1970s. Now, there are over 300 nationwide. Of the immersion programs offered in the U.S., 43 percent are Spanish and 30 percent are French, followed by Japanese and Mandarin.

According to the center for Applied Linguistics, there are three main types of foreign language immersion programs in the U.S. Total immersion Programs are defined as programs in which all subjects taught in the lower grades (K-2) are taught in the foreign language, with some instruction in English in the upper grades (3-6). Partial Immersion Programs are programs in which 50% of subjects are taught in the foreign language; in some cases, material taught in the foreign language is re-articulated in English.

Two-Way Immersion programs use English and a non-English language equally. In these types of programs, typically one to two thirds of students are native speakers of the non-English language; the remaining students are native English speakers. The immigration of non-native English speakers (from Mexico, Korea, Japan and European countries) has made these programs viable, stronger, and more prevalent in the national public school system.

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The Center for Applied Linguistics puts forth three components that define Two-Way Immersion: Integration (the two groups of native speakers are integrated for at least 50 percent of class time at all grad levels), Instruction (content and literacy instruction is provided to students in both English and the non-English language for at least 50 percent of the school day), and Population (in each program, there is an equilibrium between native English and non-English speakers, with each group comprising one-third or two- thirds of the learner population).

Originally designed to help non-English speaking students assimilate both scholastically and socially, bilingual (also referred to as “dual-language” or “two-way bilingual”) education for children of immigrants has remained controversial since its inception in the 1980s. According to a 1997 study, possible negative aspects include decreased quality of education in core academic subjects when taught in minority languages, strained social interaction with native English speakers, and issues related to language and power.

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The majority of Two- Way Immersion programs in the U.S. are conducted in English and Spanish, and members of the Hispanic immigrant community make up a large percentage of the student body. There are 320 Spanish/English programs in the country, the majority of which are in California, Texas, and New York, followed by French Two-Way Immersion programs (8) and Korean (5). The first Two-Way Immersion programs started in the U.S. in 1963, with minimal growth between the 1960s and 1990s. Most Two-Way Immersion programs in existence today began in the late 1980s (or after) and were a response to the immigration of Spanish-speaking individuals.

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