A decade ago, we rarely heard the phrase international education or global education. Today it’s part of every teacher’s mission. The 21st century is the global age, and leading-edge language immersion programs offer a unique opportunity to prepare students for the globalized world in which they will live, work and contribute.
Becoming highly proficient in a foreign language is not the only answer to the challenge of the global era, but it is a very important part of the answer. Language and culture are intertwined, and fluency in a second language opens the door to new worlds. Knowledge of the world and competence in interacting with other cultures begins with proficiency in another language.
Many of us tried to learn languages in ways that led to frustration, not proficiency. Ask most American adults about their language classes. Most will regretfully admit they remember almost nothing. Language immersion means learning in a new language, as well as learning the language itself. Students learn the same challenging curriculum as other public school students, except in another language. After decades of research, we have compelling proof that early language immersion is the way to develop high levels of proficiency in a second language, while also fostering strong overall academic achievement.
When adults watch five year olds reading in a language they began learning just weeks before, it seems impossible, almost miraculous. How could learning to read in French or German with no English instruction for the first three years of school result in better reading performance in both languages? How could learning math entirely in Chinese or Japanese improve math scores? These and other exciting outcomes have led to rapid growth in language immersion programs across North Carolina and the nation.
Over the course of 20 years as principal of several language immersion schools, I’ve watched the idea of language immersion education catch fire in our community and nationally. Today’s parents want their children to benefit from the cognitive flexibility and enhanced learning capacity that come with learning in a second language. I’ve experienced the joy of families whose kindergartener won a seat in the magnet lottery. No matter which school or which language they chose, these families celebrated the opportunity for their child to become bilingual, bi-literate and culturally competent. I’ve also experienced the tears and sadness of too many parents whose child missed out on the opportunity to enroll in a language immersion program. Despite increased capacity at each of CMS’s three award-winning immersion schools, the demand for seats far exceeds the current supply. There is an urgent need to expand language immersion opportunities for our children.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education’s $805 million capital funding request supports a new K-8 Language Immersion magnet school in the northern part of our county, to mirror the current multi-language K-8 immersion program at E. E. Waddell. It also envisions converting the current Smith Family Center on Tyvola Road into a K-8 language magnet campus, housing both the current E. E. Waddell language program and the Collinswood Language Academy. Expanding the Spanish dual language immersion program into a third school is also planned.
In Mecklenburg County and across the country, schools are challenged to prepare every student to be competitive in a global economy. If we are to achieve that goal, we must make the commitment to increase access to language immersion programs in our community.
Ynez Olshausen is the former principal of E. E. Waddell Language Academy, a K-8 language immersion magnet school.