January 25th, 2012
04:15 PM ET

The growing alternative to English-only education

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.

Poll: Should English be the official language of the United States?

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.”

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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. jake

    There are draw back to Immersion programs. The program benefits ESL students far more than English speakers.

    The bilingual activists won't tell you that English speaking kids in these programs have deficits in their English language skills for years to come. The time used to teach them a foreign language means they aren't learning what their non- immersion program peers are learning. Some kids are great at learning foreign languages- others struggle. Those who struggle and don't understand the language aren't just losing out on learning a foreign language- but their essential primary school education that can put them at a disadvantage for years to come.

    We considered a Korean/English immersion program for our kids who are Korean American. We decided against it because we don't want to sacrifice their education in other subjects. It's nice to know a foreign language- but it's still a foreign language. Businesses always prefer native speakers and no matter how good the immersion program, an American kid exposed to a foreign language a few hours a day in class is never going to be fluent enough to be confused with a native speaker.

    January 27, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Valentijn

      The bilingual won't tell you any of those things because everything you said is inaccurate. There's no deficit to immersion or bilingual learning at an early age.

      January 28, 2012 at 4:21 am | Report abuse |
    • jake

      Immersion programs fully admit kids initially lag behind their peers- especially English speaking kids. The kids receiving their education in their non-native language aren't getting as much out of the instruction in core subjects as the kids who have no trouble understanding the teacher. In CA, it's a big problem that the early immersion kids test horribly on the 2nd grade standardized tests because they aren't taught to read in English until 2nd grade.They claim kids catch up. They say the test scores for these kids are equal to their peers- but these programs are taking place in well to do areas where kids have received years of high quality pre-school and their parents have the money for tutors. The kids who don't do well they blame on having auditory learning disabilities.

      Friends of mine had their daughter in a Spanish/English immersion program run by a public school. that's made all the news about dual immersion.They started worrying how far behind she was in 2nd grade. Other kids her age where reading at a 5th grade level and doing 4th grade math. She could barely complete a 1st grade math workbook and her English was bad enough her pediatrician was concerned about learning disabilites. The teacher insisted there was nothing to worry about. It was a 6 year program and by the end of it she'd be right on track. Instead they took her to a tutoring center where she tested at a KINDERGARTEN level for English and math. They freaked. Pulled her out of the immersion program and put her into first grade at a private school. The class she was in at least 5 of the English speaking kids were pulled out before the end because their parents thought they were too far behind. None of the news reports about this school's dual immersion program mention the kids pulled because they're behind.

      January 28, 2012 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
      • allison

        One child lagging behind does not discredit an entire program. My children are in an immersion school and the test results for their schools are at or higher the other top-performing schools in our district. There are kids in ALL schools that will fall behind their peers regardless of the method of instruction. That doesn't mean the program isn't great, just that it doesn't work for that child. Just like some kids learn better in a Montessori style environment rather than a traditional school. We all learn in our own ways.

        From what I've seen, the middle and high school students in the immersion program actually do better in grammar and writing skills because they've had to compare and contrast the differences in the two languages which makes them more aware of the rules in both.

        February 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Stella

    Voluntarily learning a second language is a different thing than being forced to learn a second language in the US because of people who insist on only speaking one language, and that language is not English. Most Spanish speakers in the southwest are not bilingual and don't aspire to be. They only speak Spanish and have no intention of ever speaking anything else.

    January 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jqu

    I think we all have to start to realize that for our kids sakes, for them to be successful. They should learn 2 languages (at least) and that it is easiest to learn when you are younger and immersion is the best way to learn. Spanish and chinese are very widely spoken and if you look at the way business is going they are going to be the key to survival and being marketable in the work place. We should all be encouraging our children to learn multiple languages.

    January 27, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew Hardesty

      I agree completely with you about having kids become bilingual. There is strong evidence that being bilingual will further a students academic success. It is important for students to be exposed to a second language at an early age, though.

      May 17, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. D

    How hard is it to press 1 for English an 2 for Spanish? Make both official ignore Spanish if you want it's really not a big deal.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |

      Lets make Englich the language of the US (oh yeah it is) and although we try to please thouse here illeglaly with their anchor babies, we teach in the shool system in English. I do think we need a Federal ID Card for ALL citizens and those here legally. If youdo not have this card you cannot buy groceries, gas, get medical care, enroll your child in school, and you would not receive none of the BILLIONS we spend every year for those here illegally.

      January 26, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
      • D

        We should all learn the language most spoken in the Western Hemisphere and second most on Earth-> Spanish.

        January 26, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
      • D

        MAybe you're right but we can't ignore Spanish if you can get from North California to the southernmost tip of Chile with one language an even understand Portuguese with Spanish.

        January 26, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
      • JOSE0311USMC


        January 27, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |

      I do believe if you do not speak and write english you should be investigatged further prior to enrollemnt in school!!

      January 26, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
      • D

        Maybe your right but we can't ignore Spanish if you can get by from California to the southernmost tip of Chile with one language an even understand Portuguese with Spanish.

        January 26, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Henry

    Let's send the Mexicans and the Blacks out of the USA, problem solved

    January 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jacob

      I assume you were trying to be sarcastic. On a site like CNN, I was surprised to see your comment still remains. Unfortunately, I have a feeling your serious in which case. I am disappointed in your lack of clarity and understanding for even basic culture in the US. My confusion stems from your including African American people in your statement. If I am not mistaken they also speak English, and can probably trace their lineage in this country farther than yours. However, If I am mistaken then realize this comment is for some other close minded bigot.

      January 26, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
  6. patriotsofli

    Lets all start talking diffrent languages. I want German, Itlian, Polish, also taught.

    January 26, 2012 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
  7. hamsta

    should english be the official language of the united states? that is a retarded question.english IS the official language of the united states and has been for more than 200 years.that mexican is in my neighborhood so he needs to learn my language and not the other way around.instead of forcing restaurants to put up menus in spanish they should force illega immigrants to go back to mexico if they cant speak english.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
    • allison

      Actually, it's not. There is no official language in the United States. Just because something is the most common lanugage spoken in a country doesn't mean it's the official language.

      February 6, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |