Parents, teachers praise Utah’s dual language immersion

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Editor’s note: This story pairs with “Dual immersion not the only way to learn languages, experts say”

Gov. Jon Huntsman signed Utah’s International Education Initiative into law in 2008, funding dual language immersion programs at 15 elementary schools.

Now, almost 10 years later, Utah offers 195 dual language immersion programs in elementary, middle and high schools all over the state.

The initiative, or SB41, provided $750,000 in funding for programs in Chinese, Spanish and French. The state has since expanded its offerings to include German, Russian and Portuguese.

The bill that funded Utah’s dual language immersion programs, the International Education Initiative, provided $750,000 for 15 programs in 2008. Today, the state offers 195 programs in six languages. (Ashley Lee)

How it works

Students in Utah’s dual language immersion programs spend half the school day learning in English and half the day learning in the target language.

Each class has two teachers: one who teaches in English and one who teaches in the target language. The target language teacher never speaks English to the students.

In the first few months of the program, students — kindergartners or first graders, depending on the program — are allowed to speak English.

But starting in January of that first year, English is banned from the classroom altogether. All communication must happen in the target language.

BYU alumna Jennifer Harper Steed taught in Portuguese in the dual language immersion program at Bluffdale Elementary School from 2013 to 2015.

Steed said “the most awesome part of the year” is when students are no longer allowed to speak English.

“They start to catch on that they can speak, and so they really start to thrive in the language,” Steed said.

By the end of the first year of the program, the students are practically fluent — even making jokes in the new language, Steed said.

What parents think

“The program is strong, and parents really like it,” said Diana Suddreth, director of teaching and learning for the Utah State Board of Education.

Toby Irvin —  a 9-year-old German immersion student — meets President Dieter F. Uchtdorf at the German National Day of Remembrance Celebration in November 2015. Toby spoke to President Uchtdorf in German at the ceremony. (Kris Trevino Irvin)

Two of those satisfied parents are BYU alumnus Nate Irvin and his wife, BYU student Kris Trevino Irvin.

Nate and Kris enrolled their son, Toby, in the German immersion program at Summit Academy in Bluffdale, Utah in 2014.

Now a fourth-grader, Toby is just as fluent in the language as a German child of the same age.

“I’m actually really jealous because I really, really wanted to learn a language as a kid,” Kris said.

Kris, who now takes German classes at BYU to try to keep up with Toby, said she hopes more schools adopt dual language immersion programs.

“For the kids that need a little bit extra in school, need more challenge, it’s great for them,” Kris said. “It’s a skill they’ll keep forever.”

Denise and Kevin Brown felt the same way about the education their son received in his dual language immersion program.

Gregary Brown, now a seventh-grader, attended a Mandarin Chinese immersion program at JP Stewart Elementary School in Centerville, Utah for first though third grade.

His parents, Denise and Kevin, drove him far out of the way so he could attend the school.

“We felt that it would be a skill that he would keep for his entire life,” Kevin said.

The Browns moved out of state several years ago, so Gregary was not able to continue in the immersion program. He continues to receive two hours of Mandarin instruction every week at a private Chinese school.

He recently passed a proficiency exam administered by the Chinese government, receiving the second-highest grade in the class.

Still, Denise said Gregary’s progress in the language has “definitely” slowed down since he left the immersion program.

“He would be much further ahead if he stayed in it; I have no doubt,” Denise said.

What students think

BYU linguistics student Carmen Emilia Juárez completed a Spanish immersion program during her time at Timpanogos Elementary School in Provo.

Juárez’ father immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala, and she grew up hearing both English and Spanish at home. But before starting the program, Juárez knew only a few Spanish words and phrases.

When her parents heard about the immersion program at Timpanogos Elementary School, they thought it was a great idea, Juárez said.

“At the time, I was not very happy about it at all. I really wanted to be in a normal class,” Juárez said. “But in retrospect, I’m so glad that I did it because it helped my Spanish learning throughout my entire life.”

By the time Juárez left the program, she could carry on a conversation in Spanish.

“I remember as soon as it was done, I didn’t necessarily feel like I could speak Spanish, but my ability had actually improved quite a bit,” Juárez said. “My ability to understand and at least to have a basic conversation had improved tremendously.”

Since then, she’s used her Spanish skills for work and to speak to her grandpa, who speaks mainly Spanish.

“That huge foundation of Spanish that I got through all of elementary school, I think, is what helped me to be able to have an ear for Spanish, to be able to know when something sounds right or something sounds wrong,” Juárez said.

Dual language immersion’s future

There are more parents who want their children enrolled in a dual language immersion program than there are slots available.

But Suddreth said future growth for the programs presents additional challenges because of limited resources, including qualified teachers and available classrooms.

Additionally, it wouldn’t be feasible to make every classroom a dual language immersion classroom, even if resources were unlimited.

Immersion students are only accepted at the beginning of the program, meaning students older than kindergarten or first grade can’t join the program.

For example, if all of Utah’s classrooms were dual language immersion ones, a student who moved to Utah in the fourth grade would have nowhere to go.

But Steed, who has since moved to Washington state, said Utah is the ideal environment for dual language immersion programs to thrive.

One reason is the large amount of returned missionaries who are fluent in a foreign language, Steed said.

Another is state funding. According to Steed, legislative action that funded dual language immersion programs is what made it so successful in Utah.

There’s a large Brazilian population where she lives, but it’s hard to organize immersion programs without funding from the state, Steed said.

Steed said she hopes more schools adopt dual language immersion programs.

“The more people are educated about it and how positive it is to learn languages at a young age, I feel like the more schools we’ll have like that,” Steed said.

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