The future of our language
Daily Record/Sunday News
Sunday, September 26, 2004

Census numbers predict a sea change in speaking

To someone who speaks only English, words can be taken for granted.  A chair is always a chair.

But to someone learning a second language, chair might be silla or chaise or der Stuhl.

"One of the problems in this country is we really don't understand how language works," said Becky Kline, executive director for the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Language at Dickinson University.

But to a bilingual child, "Words are pretty arbitrary," said Kline, whose nonprofit agency promotes and advocates for foreign language education.

"We don't call it a raccoon because there is something that goes with the word. And once you know it is arbitrary, then you know there are choices."

As America changes in the next decades, many native English speakers may no longer be able to take language for granted. The U.S. Census Bureau
predicts that in 30 years, 40 percent of the school-age population will speak a language at home other than English.

Studies have shown the way to reach these students is through a type of immersion language program started this year in the York City School District.

The district's Spanish immersion classes at three of its six elementary schools are the first of its kind in Central Pennsylvania.

A 2002 study of five school districts by the U.S. Department of Education funded Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence found that programs similar to the ones being taught in the York school district are most effective for minority-language speaking students over the long term and have the fewest dropouts from those programs.

The report states that non-English speakers performed better in all academic subjects after 4 to 7 years of dual-language schooling than when taught solely in English.

While the Manheim Township School District in Lancaster County has had an immersion program since 1994, its program is only one-way immersion ?that is, the students are all native English speakers.

York's program is split between students who are native English speakers and students whose first language is Spanish.

But while such programs are still unusual for the area, the need for alternative language programs is growing.

For years, the common practice of teaching non-English speakers had been to immerse them in the English language essentially stripping away the native language of the Spanish-speaking child, Kline said.

"Ten years later, (the student) is in ninth grade taking Spanish I," she said.

Even though the concept of dual immersion has been around since 1963, it is now gaining in popularity.

According to a 2002 survey, 249 schools across the country had a dual-immersion language program. The vast majority of them were in Spanish/English. Of the rest of them: five were Chinese/English; five French/English; three Korean/English; and two Navajo/English.

Rather than teaching non-English students how to speak a different language, dual-immersion programs focus more on teaching Spanish-speaking students how to learn a second language while preserving their native one - as well as teaching English-speaking students to gain Spanish fluency.

Kline said one of the advantages of dual-immersion programs, as opposed to one-way immersion, is that children are working together to learn each other's language, providing cultural experiences they might otherwise not have.

"What a brilliant, brilliant concept," Kline said.