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More Than Just Another Language: The Benefits of Immersion Education

I first learned about Avenues: The World School in 2012 and I was instantly captivated by this part of the mission statement:

We will graduate students who are accomplished in the academic skills one would expect; at ease beyond their borders; truly fluent in a second language…

I am a half-Taiwanese and half-Puerto Rican American and have grown up surrounded by three languages: Mandarin, Spanish and English. The moment I learned there was an educational program grounded in both Mandarin and Spanish immersion, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Growing up across countries, cultures and languages, you never quite realize the benefits of multilingualism. When I immigrated to the US at the age of 5 I just wanted to assimilate American culture as quickly as possible, so I would mask my ability to speak other languages. It wasn’t until I was older that I came to appreciate what my parents gave me - the gift of languages.

Later, as a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, I had the opportunity to research the science behind second language acquisition, and now I have the privilege to see the benefits every day in our students at Avenues.

One of the distinguishing aspects of Avenues is our commitment to language immersion. We don’t teach Chinese and Spanish; we teach in Chinese and Spanish. At Avenues, students in nursery–grade 5 spend 50% of their time learning content in English and the other 50% learning in either Chinese or Spanish.

Research has shown that there are many benefits associated with immersion education. Knowing more than one language opens up boundless cultural, intellectual, and professional pathways and is an essential skill in our modern world. This is a fantastic high-level NPR summary of the benefits of bilingualism. Digging deeper, scientific research has shown a number of specific benefits:

  • Social benefits – Multilingual exposure has been shown to facilitate the basic skills of interpersonal understanding, increasing a child’s empathy; a trait in ever increasing demand.
  • Increased attentional control – Using the Attention Network Test (ANT), researchers found that early bilingual children responded significantly better than monolingual or later bilingual children.
  • Doubled vocabulary – Studies show that children can learn 2,000 words across two languages at the same rate as a monolingual child would learn 1,000 words.
  • Enhanced working memory – Specific cognitive skills develop to cope with the demands of controlling two languages that directly enhance working memory functions.
  • Superior problem solving skills –Bilingual children outperform children who speak only one language in problem-solving skills based on the brain pathways.

Many parents ask whether or not immersion education could be detrimental to their child’s English language skills. Research shows that “the effect of learning a second language on first-language skills has been positive in all studies done… [and] the loss of instructional time in English has never been shown to have negative effects on the achievement of the first language.” (Bournot-Trites & Tellowitz, 2002) This is what we see in our students at Avenues. Each year our upper elementary students match or often surpass their monolingual peers in their English language results on the International Schools Assessment.

At Avenues, students in the Early Learning Center (ELC) and Lower Division are not only receiving a bilingual education, but are being immersed in multiple cultures. We consider our immersion curriculum to be a passport for our students, one that will open up new worlds, friendships and ways of thinking as they grow up and adapt to an ever-changing world.