Children learn foreign languages in math, science classes

Posted May 16, 2010 12:00 p.m. EDT
Updated January 16, 2011 9:56 a.m. EST

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, shows how Seattle students are learning foreign languages so they can compete in a global economy.

The John Stanford International School immerses every student in either Spanish or Japanese.

Each student chooses a language and spends half the day studying math and science in that language. They spend the other half of the day learning social studies and language arts in English.

School administrators faced a learning curve in deciding which subjects to teach in a second language, Principal Karen Kodema said.

"Of course, we thought social studies at first, because that's where all the meat is; you talk about cultures and things," she said "Wrong. That's very abstract. So the idea is we took math and science, because that's where you have a lot of the hands-on (activities)."

Visiting educators have marveled at the school's ability to teach second-language skills while constantly improving students' test scores. The school has won national honors, and the program has been so successful that Seattle has created five other international schools, including one that teaches Mandarin Chinese.

Students, though, were more nonchalant about their achievements.

"If I go to Japan (and) I want to order something to eat, I just say it in Japanese. It's easy," a student named P.J. said.

Those language skills will give a leg up to students who are going to have to compete in a global economy, Kodema said.

"Our children from other countries are learning English. Our children who are English speakers are learning Japanese and Spanish. So we really level the playing field," she said.

International School students also benefit from exposure to children from other cultures. Immigrants comprise about a quarter of the student population.

"Everyone understands what it takes to learn a language. And everyone then begins to appreciate each other," Kodema said.