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Arizona's Language-Immersion Program: A Vote of Confidence

Can policymakers overcome partisan bickering in the service of language immersion programs? Aiden Fleming, Legislative Liaison for the Arizona Department of Education, tells how it happened in Arizona and shares three strategies you can use in your community.

By Aiden Fleming

A recent poll out The Pew Research Center shows the political divide between the right and the left is ever widening—I'm sure you're not surprised. Embittered politics, partisan rancor, and one-upmanship has become the blasé expectation of voters that's almost universally followed with an eye roll and a shrug. Electorates see serious bi-partisan bills rarely pass, with only the occasional piece of Kumbaya legislation attempt—an all-to-often, ill-fated run through the legislative gauntlet.

This past year I was given the opportunity to write and present SB1242 to the Arizona State legislature, effectively pitching the state's first statewide language immersion program. Integrating state departments of education with local education agencies to teach multilingualism has been tried across the country the past few years with varying degrees of success. Over the past decade, Utah has become the immersion leader, creating and exporting their 50/50 immersion model, which has been adopted in various forms by many states across the country—and is the basis for Arizona's SB1242.   

Many (myself included) were concerned that the bill would not get traction based on Arizona's well documented history of immersing students only in the English language. For starters, Arizona's Constitution cites English as the state's official language. In 2000, Arizona voters passed proposition 203 which repealed bilingual education laws, making English the only language taught to English language learners. The Tucson Mexican-American studies program garnered months of local and national press creating a political climate that could block a bill like this from even being heard.  

In early 2013, I attended a foreign language immersion conference in Utah put on by their State Department of Education where I went from being a skeptical agency bureaucrat to an immersion model evangelist. Besides the multitude of research, evidence, teaching strategies, and excitement that was shared around the conference, there was only one morsel for the policy and political junkies in the room: "Language immersion is not political." Inside I rolled my eyes. I knew they had to be wrong about how difficult it would be to sell the idea of a seven-year-old first grader learning math in Chinese—it doesn't lend itself to an elevator pitch—but they were soon proved right.

A year later, I sat across from Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs—a conservative in his own right. In the middle of the hour long meeting about education, Superintendent John Huppenthal and I took two minutes to pitch the idea of an immersion program. Surprisingly, being bilingual, President Biggs replied back in Japanese—and later agreed to sponsor the bill himself.

It was like that with almost everyone I spoke to around the capitol, mainly because of three concepts that get to the heart of language immersion and can be pitched in under two minutes:

Critical Language Acquisition and National Defense: French, German, Italian, and Spanish make up 91% of all languages taught in public schools, all almost exclusively in high school. Immersion programs that focus on geographic language needs (i.e. In Arizona, learning Spanish still makes sense) as well as critical languages used in national defense, will assist more civically minded students and help job acquisition and retention.

Economic Opportunities: To see the impact of foreign language acquisition on economic competitiveness, one need go no further than visit the collaborative effort of the Asia Society, SAS, and Longview Foundation to map the nation. Their easily digestible data and infographics are perfect for short meetings and cut to the chase about how our national economy is enriched by the power of preparing students to be multilingual.

Culture: Cultural understanding is enhanced by the immersion model. The program spans six years (possibly more) and by teaching core academic subjects in a world language beginning in kindergarten, students can truly converse, immerse, and be introduced to another world.

Lastly, and most importantly, students are given the time and practice to acquire a world language at the right time in their development.

SB1242 passed the Arizona State Senate unanimously and only had five nay votes in the House before Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law. I challenge your school, district, and state to take a serious look at language immersion as part of the foundation to prepare students for adulthood. With a vote of confidence, my sincerest hope is that these types of programs can continue to spread and give students an opportunity to learn a language with support at the statewide level. The tools are already available and the resource needed are small. We need to show legislatures willing to listen that language immersion can break the political mold—because "it's not political," it's necessary for the United States to continue to remain safe, culturally aware, and economically competitive.    

Aiden Fleming is Legislative Liaison for the Arizona Department of Education.

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