Jennifer Lange was willing to spend the night outdoors in a sleeping bag if it meant a spot for her 5-year-old son in Albany’s dual language program at Delaware Community School. She was second in line when she arrived at noon on Sunday to secure one of two open spots in the program. The doors opened to begin registering students at 8 a.m. Monday.
Around the world, it’s typical for children to learn a foreign language at a young age. In the United States, most students must wait until middle school, but at a school in Albany, a different approach is being used. Students in Albany’s Delaware Community School are immersed in the language of Spanish beginning at the age of 4.
“All posters, communications to parents, Pledge of Allegiance and morning announcements are in both languages.”
The program is what is called an immersion program, and it allows children to spend part or all of the school day learning in a second language. Lange, who now has three children enrolled in the program, a kindergartner, second-grader and third-grader, said when she moved to Albany and heard about the program, she felt she had no choice but to get her kids enrolled.
“I came to Albany for work. I was in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, and when I heard about this program, my mouth dropped,” Lange says.
The program features one bilingual class for each grade through fifth grade. The prekindergarten class has 18 seats, nine of the students are Spanish speakers and nine are English speakers.
“It works well because it makes a community for both the Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers,” Lange says.
The Dual Language Program is the only program of its kind in the area.
“All posters, communications to parents, Pledge of Allegiance and morning announcements are in both languages,” said Thomas Giglio, the school’s principal.
The program is composed of bilingual professionals from Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Peru and the United States. Because of their backgrounds, the teachers are also able to share their cultural heritages with the children, which helps them to better achieve a multicultural awareness.
Giglio says the program is preparing the kids for a global economy, but Lange also believes she is opening her children’s minds, enabling them to learn and retain more.
A study performed by the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and The Neuro at McGill University and Oxford University suggests that learning a second language early in life can promote brain growth, boost memory and improve cognitive attention. The study found that the task of acquiring a second language at a young age stimulates new neural growth and connections among neurons.
“It’s really about your brain and developing your brain. Once you switch on these formulas, it opens your mind to learn,” Lange says.
Giglio says there is research that children in dual language programs outperform peers 20 to 25 percent on standardized testing.
“You would think with a double load of ELA and SLA, it would be opposite, but neurons are firing at a young age and getting stimulated,” he says.
Not only have the studies proved the benefit of learning a second language early, but studies have also shown that the younger a person is, the easier the language is to learn.
“When you introduce a child to language, the earlier the better,” says Kim Anderson, founder and director of the Capital Region Language Center.
Anderson, who was previously an elementary school teacher, says “the beauty of teaching kids other languages when they are young is they are completely willing to try, repeat and play with the language.”
“A lot of research has been done to show kids are more adept at learning languages because of their ability to parrot, repeat, sing and be just very playful, much in the way they learn their first language,” Anderson says. “They look at it as something to do, not learning another language.”
Lange says that being a Spanish speaker herself, she could attempt teaching her children to speak the language, but it’s not the same as completely immersing them in it like the program at Delaware Community School.
“I’m not a native speaker. I can have a conversation, and I can speak it. I had Spanish in high school, college and two years in Guatemala, so I am comfortable speaking it, but my third-grader at this point is probably higher than me in Spanish. I have parents come up to me and ask me if she is from Columbia,” Lange laughs, “I say, ‘no it’s her school.'”
Lange says in families where two different languages are spoken, the reading and writing is what is usually missing.
“They might be able to speak the language, but are speaking it with family and not at an academic level. They are not getting the same vocabulary as they would at school or doing full book reports in Spanish. It’s the consistency of Spanish Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Lange says.
Every day students in the dual program receive one hour of reading and writing instruction in their native language and one hour a day of second-language instruction. Science, social studies and math are taught in Spanish one day and the next day instructed in English, on an alternating day schedule.
“We have one classroom teacher responsible for each grade level. They teach ELA, but in addition, have to teach a curriculum of SLA or Spanish Language Arts. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are our Spanish days. Everything is presented in Spanish,” Giglio says. “It’s not just a language program, it’s a true biliteracy program. The students are not only learning to speak, but can read and write in the second language.”
Lange admits it can be tough sometimes for her son, who is not much of a communicator, but he is getting along well.
“He can struggle sometimes, but my older daughter is thriving and my kindergartner is learning to read in Spanish. It’s amazing. That’s how they taught me in high school, and she is in kindergarten,” she says.
Lange says parents have pulled their kids from the program in the past because they thought it was too rigorous.
“But we have also had parents say, ‘We want more,'” she says. “My third-grader is reading ‘The Magic Tree House’ in Spanish and doing an essay. It enhances their language skills so much.”
Giglio says not only are the English-speaking families benefiting, but the families of the Spanish-speaking students feel the school is a place where they can be heard.
Lange agrees and finds that many of the other parents feel more involved with their kids and feel they know what’s going on in their child’s school.
Language lessons for preschoolers
The Early Childhood Center of Temple Israel in Albany, is starting one step earlier and immersing preschool children in Hebrew.
The program for 3- and 4-year-old children meets 11 hours a week, and every activity is taught or presented in Hebrew.
“Starting the first day they come in, everything is communicated in Hebrew. Often the teacher will start with signs on her shirt, one Hebrew and one English. She turns the chart around,” says Amie Bloom, the school’s early childhood director. “Beyond that, everything she says is exclusively in Hebrew for the kids. As early as November, the kids have soaked it all up. What the teacher believes is you need to be larger than life. She is expressive with her body and face and uses hand motions.”
Bloom says the instructor never translates words, but rather talks to them and acts out as a way of communicating with the young children.
“What we have learned is that basically there is an area of your brain that has the ability to learn languages,” Bloom says. “Sixth grade is a late time to develop that portion of your brain. By turning on that portion at a young age, you can continue to learn more languages.”
Bloom says reading different characters such as that of the Hebrew language, turns can even help with other languages, such as Chinese.
Anderson says any language learning that a child can receive when they are young can help in the long run. At the Capital Region Language Center in both Malta and Colonie, they offer a variety of classes for anyone’s schedule.
“I’ve never met a person that has said it’s a great idea to teach language at age 12,” Anderson says. “What we do is help to alleviate the fact that the classes don’t exist in schools.”
At the end of the school day, many Capital District schools are offering enrichment classes for young children through programs such as the Capital Region Language Center’s LEAP program.
“We are still getting the kids at the perfect age,” Anderson says.
Anderson says some private schools introduce languages earlier than the public schools, but classes such as these can help to fill the gap.
“We can still capture the language learning time for young children and not miss that period of time when they can learn easily,” she says.
Nancy Scarselletta, Founder and Director of the Language Learning Institute in Latham, and former public school teacher, recently added Mandarin to the institute’s available course options.
“Mandarin is becoming more and more popular for American businesses. Mandarin is the standard Chinese and the one used the most widely. We are very much in the era of a global market, and that’s going to become stronger not weaker,” she says. “Being able to function effectively in a global market will definitely be the wave of the future, and the earlier the child starts in the language, the more efficient they are going to be as a working adult.”
Anderson says originally the Capital Region Language Center opened as a Spanish school, but over the years they realized a greater need to offer more languages.
“We now have programs in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Korean, Latin, Portuguese, Russian and sign language,” she says.
The instructors who teach the programs at the schools are either native or near native, meaning when you hear them speak, you would assume they are a native speaker.
Both Anderson and Scarselletta says their programs have continued to grow since they began.
“We have definitely seen significant growth in the last couple of years. I would say there seems to be a greater awareness in the Capital Region of the diversity of the Capital Region, Anderson said.
As for Lange, she believes in today’s world, learning a second language can only better a child.
“My children will know how to get around,” she says. “It’s mostly about globalization, but also about their brain, the exposure to diversity, to community, especially a community they would not be a part of if it weren’t for the school … the understanding of another culture and how people think,” Lange says. “At the end of the day it’s worth it. They are not complaining. It is just the school they go to.”