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Foreign-Language Immersion Payoff

How to teach a foreign language has long been the subject of heated debates. If the latest study is any indication, however, the answer may be immersion ("Why can Palo Alto grade schoolers read Mandarin better than students in AP Chinese classes?" Stanford Graduate School of Education Newsletter, Jun. 4).

What is so impressive is that 4th and 5th graders in a Palo Alto public elementary school achieved linguistic competency in Mandarin comparable to Advanced Placement students in a nearby high school. With pressure mounting on schools to prepare students for the new global economy, the results are extremely promising.  Like Farsi and Arabic, Mandarin is considered a strategic language.

There's one caveat: The 48 students in the elementary school and the 119 in the high school are not typical because 20 in the former group and 71 in the latter group were heritage learners. That means they were raised in a home where a non-English language was spoken.  In this case the language was Mandarin.  As a result, the outcomes may be atypical.  I would have liked to see how the non-heritage students in the elementary and high school compared.

Nevertheless, the study raises the question of the value of the traditional ways of teaching a foreign language in this country. I learned Spanish in a public high school by total immersion.  From the first day, the teacher spoke only Spanish.  Although I didn't understand everything, I quickly internalized the sound of the language.  Perhaps I was blessed with a good ear, but I believe there is great value to this approach.

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