Language Immersion

Intercultural Montessori’s language immersion program provides a wonderful opportunity for children to learn a second language in a natural environment before the developmental window for language acquisition closes. Increasingly, research indicates that learning a second language has innumerable benefits for a child’s brain development. It increases creativity, enhances verbal and mathematical problem solving skills, and develops an advantage in grasping and formulating concepts. These skills contribute profoundly to a child’s self-esteem and sense of value. Best of all, it prepares a child for life in the multi-cultural, multilingual world of the 21st century.

A language immersion program immerses the child in a second language, using it as a tool to teach all subjects, rather than teaching the language in isolation as one of many other curriculum subjects. In a language immersion program the second language is generally referred to as the “target language.” At Intercultural, we use a dual-language approach, where students are immersed in their second “target” language and English throughout the course of their day. In this balanced immersion approach, all class activities and subjects are conducted in the target language and in English.

We balance the immersion in different ways depending on the developmental level of the students:

At the primary level (ages 3-6) the languages are divided by time of day. In the mornings (8:30-12:30) the children are immersed in the target language. In the afternoons (8:30-3:00) the teachers switch to a focus on English.

At the lower elementary level (ages 6-9) the languages are divided by instructor. Each classroom has two lead teachers: one directs in the target language and the other in English. The children go back and forth between the two languages depending on which instructor they are working with.

At the upper elementary level (ages 9-12) the curriculum becomes increasingly complex. Children learn all curriculum areas in English, but have intensive language break-out each day in their target language. 

In our primary immersion classrooms, the teachers and assistants use only the target language. Target language teachers realize that their students will not understand everything they say at first, so they use a variety of methods to communicate including body language, context clues, gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, expressive intonation, visual aids, and objects to communicate their meaning.

It is common for the children to communicate with each other in English, however the teachers will actively encourage their students to use the target language when responding to their questions or asking for assistance. The older children in the classroom often act as natural, unprompted translators for the younger ones. In a very short amount of time, the children begin understanding basic instructions and information delivered by the teachers in the target language. We often see our children begin speaking spontaneously and expressing their own thoughts in their second language in less than a year.

The acquisition of a second language has five recognized stages. These stages take place over general time periods during which the student is exposed to the second language. Each time period is associated with a set of expected outcomes and, although this will of course vary from student to student, it provides educators with a frame of reference. See the table below:

Name Given
to Each Stage

Expected Outcomes
and General
Characteristics

Amount of
Exposure to
a
Second Language

Teacher
Prompts

PreproductionThe student…

Has minimal comprehension

Does not verbalize

Nods “Yes” and “No”

Draws and points

0–6 months of studyShow me…

Circle the…

Where is…?

Who has…?

Early
Production
The student…

Has limited comprehension

Produces one- or two-word responses

Participates using key words and familiar phrases

Uses present-tense verbs

6 months – 1 year of studyYes/No questions

Either/or questions

One- or two-word
answers

Lists

Labels

Speech
Emergence
The student…

Has good comprehension

Can produce simple
sentences

Makes grammar and
pronunciation errors

Frequently
misunderstands jokes

1–3 years of studyWhy…?

How…?

Explain…

Phrase or
short-sentence
answers

Intermediate
Fluency
The student…

Has excellent comprehension

Makes few grammatical errors

3–5 years of studyWhat would
happen if…?

Why do you
think…?

Advanced
Fluency
The student has a near-native level of speech.5–7 years
of study
Decide if…

Retell…


Source:
 Adapted from Krashen and Terrell, The Natural Approach (1983).