By Alyse Shorland, CNN
(CNN) - Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination are debating and disagreeing about the economy and foreign policy, but they backed each other on one issue this week: the English language.
At Monday's debate in Florida, Newt Gingrich said this week he supports English as an official language of the United States: “I think it is essential to have a central language that we expect people to learn and to be able to communicate with each other in,” he said.
Mitt Romney said everyone in school should be learning in English: “English is the language of this nation,” he said. “People need to learn English to be able to be successful, to get great jobs.”
Romney, in his 2010 book, “No Apologies: the Case for American Greatness,” highlighted his support for English-only immersion in Massachusetts public schools. As governor, he led the state to pass a law against bilingual education, mandating one year of English-only transitional language instruction for anyone learning the language before moving to mainstream classrooms. California and Arizona have similar laws.
But educators across the country are trying a different approach, one that English-only advocates aren't considering: Immersion training for non-English speakers - and English speakers. Immersion has several forms, but generally means students learn their core subjects in two languages – a primary language, usually English, and a secondary language.
“What we hear is no dual language, English only,” said Tara Fortune, immersion project coordinator at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota. “But what’s really happening is beneath the surface these programs are really growing. It’s become sexy.
“Immersion is a program that is about bilingualism, bi -literacy and multi-literacy."
Researchers have seen a growth in immersion education across the country. The Center for Applied Linguistics estimated there are about 1200 programs in schools across the nation. Most are Spanish and English programs, but a growing number include Mandarin Chinese, Korean and French. The instruction can be about improving English skills for the 21% of school-age children in the country who speak a language other than English at home, but also about encouraging bilingual skills for English speakers as well.
Utah, one of the most consistently conservative states in the nation, spearheaded two-way immersion programs over the past few years under Republican governor and former GOP presidential nominee hopeful Jon Huntsman.
Utah’s language instruction focuses on immersion learning. In Utah, students learn 50% of their subjects in English and 50% in a second language. Two-way immersion means some students speak English as their native languages at home, and some might not.
For the 2011-2012 school year, there are 57 immersion programs in Utah— 31 in Spanish, 17 in Mandarin Chinese and nine in French. Next year, the state expects to have 76 programs, said Gregg Roberts, world languages and dual immersion specialist for Utah’s Department of Education. All of the instruction starts in kindergarten or first grade, and the overarching plan for these programs was developed and supported at a state level.
Roberts said the business community in Utah understands the economic importance of being fluent in two languages in order to increase productivity and reach on a global scale. He also noted that these programs don't cost school districts much to implement. Under the state plan, schools recruit teachers for core subjects that are fluent in the immersion languages, be it English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or French. The number of teachers in a school does not increase.
“By using the two-teacher model, if you have 50 kids it takes two teachers no matter what. So we have two groups, A and B, and they trade off," Roberts said. “And the parents love them and they love coming here.”
The large Mormon community in Utah also embraces bilingualism as a missionary necessity, he said. The Mormon religion encourages its members to travel the world on mission trips to spread knowledge of Mormonism abroad. The ability to speak a second language is necessary to communicate in a host country – a fact that even played out on the campaign trail: Both Mormon presidential hopefuls spoke second languages, French for Romney and Mandarin for Huntsman.
Delaware recently partnered with Utah to build a similar immersion instruction program in their state. Dr. Gregory Fulkerson with Delaware’s Department of Education said they hope to have five programs implemented next year and are using Utah’s model as an example of how to structure a state led immersion initiative.
Like Utah, Fulkerson said, Delaware has an economic incentive to create dual language programs. Many of the country’s Fortune 500 companies are incorporated in Wilmington,Delaware. Fulkerson said when one large insurance company in Wilmington decided to expand in Brussels instead of Delaware, state leaders were left asking, “why?”
The reason the company gave: “The average person in Brussels speaks three languages,” Fulkerson said, “and the average person in Wilmington, Delaware, speaks one.”
“Language learning is not just about a college prerequisite skills, it’s about real world skills, language learning is about jobs,” Fulkerson said. “So we have to do a much better job to create advanced language skills that will keep jobs in Delaware or create jobs here.”
Fulkerson also noted that while language fluency is important in business deals, it’s also the softer side of cultural competency that comes with understanding another language that businesses look for in an employee.
“What businesses really want from the people they hire is not only advanced language but an ability to communicate culturally - being appreciative of how to communicate with people of other cultures,” he said.
In the end, Fortune, from the University of Minnesota, thinks language education comes down to basic principles.
“Language is fundamentally a resource,” she said. “You speak well, read well, write well, the more opportunities you have in your life economically. And within the world of language education there is really positive discourse around helping all kids - English speaking kids and other language kids - become bilingual and bi-literate.”