I remember sitting in that classroom. The fans were blowing; there wasn’t any air-conditioning. The teacher was addressing everyone so casually. Strings of long, eloquent language, in Spanish, spilled from her mouth, but I only understood every other word or so. I felt lost and vulnerable. I couldn’t wait for my next class, American history. I felt free in that class; I could speak English and not worry about being understood. I felt less constrained.
My first few years of living in Costa Rica, I felt shy and paranoid. I made friends, but only with people who spoke English. I felt cut off from the rest of the people I met. I didn’t ever know that the opposite effect was something that happened in the United States, until I moved back. I wasn’t considered fluent in Spanish until the last year I was in Costa Rica; that was the year I was completely immersed in an all-Spanish speaking school. However I don’t think I could have grasped the language completely if it weren’t for those several years beforehand at the bilingual school. When you are thrown into a place where the culture is still something you are learning and adapting to, it’s hard to worry about learning a new language along with it … not to mention that a lot of secrets of a culture are hidden within the language.
This is a tough subject to discuss, even as someone who has seen both sides. But I believe there are two important facts that must be taken into consideration when thinking about teaching someone a new language, especially someone who has just moved to an unfamiliar country. First, the advantages of being bilingual in our global community are vast. Being constantly connected to so many other cultures makes knowing at least one other language almost essential for success. This ties into the second fact: children are sponges. They absorb all they are told, so if possible, starting at a young age is best if you want to guarantee successful dual fluency.
However, I can understand why there are many people who think complete immersion would be the best course of action; if you are totally surrounded by the new language throughout the day, that is supposed to help you to learn it more quickly. The problem is that while it is a good theory, in reality not many schools have adequate staff or enough resources to help these kids to adapt to an entire day with only the new language; so, instead of learning the new language quickly, kids may feel overwhelmed by it. They soon fall behind, both socially and linguistically; they gradually lose their native language, yet they do not feel comfortable with their new language. And when you lose your native tongue, you lose part of your native culture, and part of your identity.
On the other hand the bilingual programs seem to work more effectively. When I was in Costa Rica, a lot of my friends’ younger siblings were either born there, or they had moved there at a very young age; they went to the same bilingual school I did, but they ended up learning language way faster than me. Granted they got confused sometimes, but that is understandable: when you move back and forth from one language to the other, you might get some words mixed up now and then. But based on what I saw, I truly believe that teaching children in a bilingual school setting from a young age results in more bilingual students, because it gives them time to get comfortable with what they are learning.
I understand that there are people who insist on immersion. But from my own experience, being immersed in Spanish was very difficult for me, while being in a school where I could use both languages helped me a lot. What will help other students is a discussion we need to keep having. And here is why it is so important. Most American students are monolingual. Yet we know that learning a new language not only allows you to communicate with a broader spectrum of people– it also allows you to understand cultures and customs you might not have understood before. Understanding another language does more than just teach you words: it gives you insights into how people in that country think, how they look at life; I learned so much about Costa Rica from living there, even if learning Spanish was not always easy.
I believe that good communication can solve problems and maybe even end wars. So, it should be a priority to make all students fluent in more than one language. That will expand their ability to communicate with more people. And if we can begin bilingual education when kids are young, that will encourage fluency. And I believe the results will be very positive: we will produce many more good communicators.