Language-immersion program boosts cognitive skills

Posted February 13, 2011 12:16 p.m. EST

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, profiles Oregon schools that prove that the younger children start learning a language, the easier it is.

The sights and sounds of Japan are part of a unique language program in the public schools of Portland, Oregon. Students are immersed in Japanese from the first day of kindergarten.

"The whole idea of an immersion education is that you're surrounded in the language," Japanese resource teacher Deanne Blazer said. "You're in a situation where you have to pay attention to the language in order to do the activity that's going on."

Language lessons are included in fun activities, as well as formal instruction.

"They're able to use the language in all the things they do in school – when they're drawing on paper, when they're trying to work out a problem with a friend," teacher Amy Grover said. "Any of these can be situations in which we can insert language and practice language.

"(The students) don't even realize how special it is."

In Richmond Elementary School's Japanese-language magnet program, students follow the Oregon state curriculum. They study their core subjects in Japanese for half the day and in English for the other half.

In middle school, they use Japanese for a third of their day, and in high school, Japanese is offered as an advanced language class.

Students can also take after-school classes, such as karate and calligraphy, that give them another way to learn the language.

The challenge of learning another language helps children become better learners across the board, teachers said.

"Their performance in cognitive assessments are higher. Their ability to see from multiple perspectives, academic performance, standardized testing, their ability to pick up a third or fourth language is higher," immersion education coordinator Michael Bacon said. 

Parents said the immersion program also gives their children a better perspective on the world.

"If you can take a child at the age of five and throw them into that cultural and language mix, and let them know that English is not the only language, that America is not the only culture, they develop a really broad tolerance of things that are different," said mother Denise Van Leuven.