As 2021 marches on, a real school year with in-person classes seems like a possibility starting in the fall. And, for parents with babies and toddlers, it’s time to investigate preschools. There are many options, but one choice really stands out as having great benefits for kids: a language immersion preschool.
Language immersion typically means that kids are taught by teachers speaking a foreign language, either all day or for selected parts of the school day. Programs abound in many languages, from Spanish and French to Korean and Mandarin. And while it might seem intense, teaching a toddler to be a dual language speaker is easier and provides a ton of benefits—far more than waiting until middle school for that first Spanish class.
Why & How It Works
While at first it might seem counterintuitive to teach a little kid a second language when they’ve not mastered their first, learning new languages at an early age is actually easier. And the benefits go further than being bilingual.
Kristen Denzer, founder of immersion preschool franchise Tierra Encantada (which acts as a total Spanish immersion daycare and pre-school), says the process is immediate and fascinating to witness. “It’s amazing to watch how children thrive when they first start at Tierra Encantada. Not just the infants who learn two languages simultaneously and quickly become fluent, but for the older children as well,” Denzer tells Parentology.
While preschoolers and Pre-K students might be naturally nervous and a little confused hearing a language they don’t know all day, Denzer says that after a week or two, they are often participating with the rest of their peers.
Benefits of Early Language Learning
Academic studies bear out the clear pluses of language immersion. “The benefits of language immersion are plenty,” noted an article in Washington Family. “According to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., learning a language at an early age enhances children’s brain development, expands their cultural awareness, helps them think more flexibly and increases job opportunities later in life. Bilingual children outperform monolingual kids in problem-solving, pattern recognition and divergent thinking.”
In fact, immersion students end up outperforming their single-language peers later on standardized tests, although those results might not emerge until middle or high school.
There’s even evidence that immersion students have greater empathy, better executive function, and overall better reading skills later in life.
“The benefits of immersion are long-term,” Elisabeth Harrington, supervisor of the World Languages Office at Arlington Public Schools (APS) said to Washington Family. “Test scores might be lower at first, so parents just have to trust the process.”
Cultural Benefits of Immersion Preschool
Sometimes, parents choose an immersion program because it exposes their child to a cultural experience they cannot provide. Los Angeles parent Justin Gu wanted his daughter to speak Mandarin, but also knew he wanted her to have a different learning experience from his own.
“I felt very fortunate to be able to send my daughter to a Mandarin immersion preschool. As an ABC [American-born Chinese] with decent, but limited command of the language, I knew that I personally couldn’t teach her Mandarin effectively. In an immersion program, I knew that she would be learning the language from a fluent speaker on a daily basis, and that it would feel normal since it was her first schooling experience,” Gu explains to Parentology.
Gu also wanted her experience to be a happy, positive one. “A lot of ABCs know the nightmare of attending Saturday morning Chinese school against your will. That was something that I did not want my own daughter to experience. I decided early on that I want my daughter to like her parents,” Gu laughs.
What to Look For in an Immersion Preschool
There are many criteria for finding the ideal immersion preschool for your child, but the first consideration might be: which language do you want your child to learn? Considerations include things like your own background (Chinese, in Gu’s case), whether you or one of your relatives speaks another language already, or merely because it’s the most common and convenient (in SoCal, for example, Spanish is ubiquitous and thus very useful).
Second, do you want partial or complete immersion? Complete means all day, every day, in a language other than English, while partial means that some subjects might be in English and some in the other tongue. Denzer is partial to complete immersion and gives some good reasons.
“We believe that full immersion is the best way to learn a second language. Half immersion programs tend to allow children to use English as a crutch, making them less motivated to learn a second language. By enrolling your child in a full immersion program, children learn naturally and begin to think in [the language] — it’s more than just rote memorization. They’ll learn the nuances of multiple languages while also being engaged in a whole new culture,” Denzer says.
Third, what is your child’s personality like? Are they outgoing or introverted, mellow or easily stressed? Beginning preschool is already a big schedule and lifestyle shift; adding in another language is often too stressful for certain kids. Expect a big adjustment time. And, don’t expect instant results. Becoming fluent takes time and practice, and becoming fluent in two languages takes a bit longer.
Finally, there are some basic concerns as there would be with any preschool.
- You want to choose a place that makes you feel safe.
- A place you can trust to take care of your child.
- For language immersion programs, a place that immerses your child in both a new language and also the culture.
“So look at what they eat for lunch, the holidays they celebrate, and how they treat other children in their care,” Denzer says. “Another thing to watch for is how many of the teachers are native speakers of the immersion language. When a teacher is not a native speaker, they often use their native tongue unintentionally throughout the day because they think in the language they are native speakers in. Programs that use primarily native speakers increase the language learning opportunities.”
Gu in fact was so pleased with his daughter’s Mandarin immersion pre-school that she now attends a public Mandarin elementary program.
“It helped that she went from preschool immersion to elementary school immersion. Language immersion is all normal to her. Also, the parents involved are all very positive and enthusiastic about it,” says Gu.
And her language skills? Overall, Gu’s pleased by her progress made without stress, threats, or Saturday morning Chinese school. “Her Mandarin is pretty good, I’m impressed so far. The speaking comes slower than the listening, but I think that’s pretty normal, especially with COVID restrictions only allowing online learning in 2020.”