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Why Immersion Is Essential in Middle School

Date Posted:  Monday, November 25, 2019

In education we tend to believe that the longer you do something, the better you will be at it. Some parents, however, stop the immersion experience of their children at the end of their primary studies. In this case, the immersion experience ends just when true language learning is beginning to develop life changing effects.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

Malcolm Gladwell developed the 10,000-Hour Rule, which he considers the key to success in any field. For him, it requires the practice a specific task that can be accomplished consistently (say with 20 hours of work a week for 10 years), hence allowing expertise in any particular area. So would that tell us about immersion programs? 

The term "immersion education" came to prominence in Canada during the 1960s to describe innovative programs in which the French language was used as a medium of instruction for elementary school students whose home language was English. There are usually three major variants of French immersion program (early immersion starting as early as preschool, middle immersion starting in elementary, or and late immersion starting in middle school).

In the US, most of the programs in the French international schools are early immersion programs and they are characterized by at least 50% of instruction time through the target language (French). For example, at Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, from preschool to grade 2, 80% of the time is in French, when from grade 3 to 8, the instructional time is divided quite equally between the two main languages of instruction (French and English) and the exposure to a third language (from 3 to 10%).

Calculating hours in an early immersion model, where students are 80 percent in the target language in grades PS-2, they will spend approximately 800 hours per year studying in French), when grade 3 and above they will spend on average 500 hours per year studying in French. For a student starting in Kindergarten, like many of our students, this gets above half of the 10,000 hours in 8th grade (5,400 hours). If students stop in 5th grade, however, they only have about 3,400 hours under their belt. So why stop the process halfway when we know that bilingualism is a rewarding, yet long journey. The reason why it is long is actually explained by a researcher called Jim Cummins.

How long does it take to be bilingual?

Jim Cummins has come up with some of the essential theories on the subject of second language acquisition. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on bilingual education and second language acquisition.

Briefly, his theory can be broken down into two different aspects that are both necessary for learners to have a confident grasp of the language they are trying to learn, Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). The BICS supports and encourages natural communication in social situations, and can take 6 months to two years to blossom. On the other hand, the CALP - which puts a greater focus on the learner’s ability to demonstrate proficiency in the academic sense. So while many children develop native speaker fluency (i.e. BICS) within two years of immersion in the target language, it takes between 5-7 years for a child to be working on a level with native speakers as far as academic language is concerned. For a child starting an immersion program in Kindergarten, it is again between 4th and 6th grade that the grade appropriate academic proficiency in the target language will be attained. 

So… by the beginning of Middle School. That is therefore not the end, but rather just the beginning of a wonderful academic journey where students can use fully the cognitive advantages of their multilingualism.

The bilingual brain and the additive bilingualism phenomenon

There's a well-established positive relationship between basic thinking skills and being a fully proficient bilingual who maintains regular use of both languages. Fully proficient bilinguals outperform monolinguals in the areas of divergent thinking, pattern recognition, and problem solving. Moreover, the results of many studies suggest that bilingualism can positively affect both intellectual and linguistic progress. These studies have reported that bilingual children exhibit a greater sensitivity to linguistic meanings and may be more flexible in their thinking than are monolingual children. Most of these studies have investigated aspects of children's metalinguistic development; in other words, children's explicit knowledge about the structure and functions of language itself. So the middle school is really the moment where promoting student understanding of more abstract and complex concepts comes together. When it became often increasingly difficult in the upper elementary grades for some students, because of difficulties in grasping advanced-level subject matter because students' cognitive development is at a higher level than their proficiency in the second language, once the CALP level is attained, it is easier.

The reasons for this outstanding achievement is due to the wonders of the human brain. The child's brain is ready to speak any language, and many languages, making the early immersion model a perfect format to learn in two languages. The plasticity of the child’s brain has been widely documented and that argument has indeed supported immersion education programs. Another milestone, however happens before puberty and lasts until the mid twenties. This second surge of neuronal growth (neurons, dendrites, and synapses) occurs just before puberty and means two things for language immersion: (i) if students continue to be exposed to the target language, they will use it in a more sophisticated and complex way (problem solving, debating, or analysing complex texts) and therefore developing enhanced critical thinking or problem solving skills than monolinguals, but (ii) is students are not continuing to learn the language during these middle school years, the second language can be lost.

Use it or lose it

For immersion education to attain its maximum potential it must be integrated into an educational philosophy that goes beyond just the discipline of linguistics. Students must have opportunities to communicate powerfully in the target language if they are going to integrate their language and cognitive development with their growing personal identities. That is a quality piece. But there certainly is a quantitative piece: immersion should be a lasting and massive experience in the target language. In summary, then, to keep fluency and fully benefit from all the advantages of bilingualism, students enrolled in language immersion programs need to go through the 8th grade at least. Use it or lose it, said Camilla Modesitt in her blog article.