When it comes to foreign language study, Utah is emerging as a national trendsetter. The state’s five-year-old dual-language immersion program will likely give Utah students a leg up in the future job market and foreign affairs, and could serve as a model for other states, language experts say.
The dual-language immersion program was born in 2008 under former Gov. Jon Huntsman with approval from the state legislature. Elementary school students spend half their instructional time in English and the other half in the target language; which language subjects are taught varies by grade level.
In grade 7 and higher, students take two classes in the target language, such as Mandarin Chinese, French and Spanish. Portuguese was added in the 2012-2013 school year.
In 2010, Gov. Gary Herbert pushed for implementing 100 dual-language immersion programs throughout the state by 2015, with the goal of enrolling 25,000 students, says Gregg Roberts, world languages and dual language specialist for Utah’s Department of Education.
But Utah districts are already meeting that goal and adding 25 more programs in the 2014-2015 year.
The language program receives about $2 million a year of funding from the state, which also provides help with teacher selection, professional development, curriculum, and materials, Roberts adds. And although many administrators may be wary of starting new foreign language programs, they don’t have to be an expensive burden for districts, says Martha G. Abbott, executive director of the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).
- Utah’s per-pupil spending: $6,064
- Nation’s per-pupil spending: $10,615
- Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010
Before Utah decided which languages would be taught, the state education office looked to, in part, a 2011 Bloomberg report, “The Languages of Business.” It reveals that Mandarin, French, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese are the top six most useful languages for business.
Utah educators are looking to add classes in Arabic, but don’t have the resources yet, Roberts says.
“In Utah, it’s all about economics, economics, economics,” Roberts says, adding that educators and leaders want Utah students not only to find jobs in the U.S., but also in Paris, Beijing, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo.
Language boosts learning
ACTFL agrees that students learn language more comprehensively when they start early or take dual-language immersion classes. Abbott also points out that standards-based language instruction helps students learn skills in other subjects and strengthens college and career readiness.
“As learners compare the new language with their native language, they gain a deeper awareness of how language functions,” says Abbott. “We routinely graduate kids with knowledge of just one language—and it’s generally been the case, because of our isolation geographically and our history … and we didn’t feel we had to interact with the rest of the world.”
About 16 states require foreign language learning now. “We feel we are coming to a tipping point,” Abbott says. “Most students are graduating with knowledge of just one language and if they take a foreign language, such as in ninth and 10th grade, there is no proficiency.”
As 2014 approaches, more jobs in medicine, engineering, government, and business are going to Asia and Latin America, forcing
Americans to up the ante to survive in the marketplace, Roberts says.
“Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century,” says Roberts. “For our economic survival and for the national security of our country, we must educate students who are multilingual and culturally competent.”
Students also need to understand what is acceptable in terms of manners and business in foreign cultures, she adds.
How it works
Utah’s program uses a 50/50 model in which students spend half their school day in the target language, with one teacher, and the other half in English, with another teacher. Utah has arrangements with Taiwan, China, France, Spain, Brazil, and Mexico to provide International Guest teachers, who have special, highly qualified licenses to teach in Utah. These teachers come on a J-1 visa for one to three years.
In K3, the target language curriculum includes literacy, math, science, and social studies, which are all aligned to the Utah Core Curriculum, the state’s version of the Common Core standards. Then, in fourth and fifth grades, students learn math and social science in English, and get reinforcement lessons in the target language. They are taught science in the target language and get reinforcement lessons in English.
In sixth grade, social science in world history courses are taught in the target language and science is taught in English, giving students more time to learn the target language.
Teachers are using materials from Pearson Education, which has developed the latest Common Core lessons in Mandarin, French, Spanish, and Portuguese for grades 1 through 6.
In grades 7 through 9, one content course, like social studies, is taught entirely in the target language. And students also take an advanced course in their target language. In ninth grade, students take an AP language course and the corresponding AP exam.
If they pass the AP exam, students in grades 10 through 12 can take university-level work through blended learning with six Utah universities.
And students are encouraged to take a third language in high school. So when students graduate, they will go on to college or the workforce knowing how to read, write, and speak two to three languages.
New wave coming?
A growing body of research shows the benefits of language learning and ways bilingualism supports other academic learning, according to a July 29 Time magazine article, called “The Power of the Bilingual Brain.”
While worries about the Common Core and tight budgets have made some educators wary of starting new programs, the next five to 10 years could bring a new wave of dual-language immersion programs. “It will take a few more years to get back into the environment where they will feel more comfortable adding more programs,” says Abbott, of ACTFL.
Utah parents rave about the state’s program, and there are waiting lists for dual language across the state. “We’re creating students who are better equipped to be active members of a global society and be more competitive in the workforce,” says Ofelia Wade, dual-language immersion coordinator for Canyons School District in suburban Salt Lake City. The program operates in eight of the district’s 29 elementary schools.
“From the business perspective, it was very clear that we needed these languages in order for Utah to attract international business,” Wade says. And many young parents are familiar with foreign cultures from working internationally. “They want to make sure their children are bilingual and trilingual,” she says. “It’s an essential skill, just like we think of technology.”
Angela Pascopella is managing editor. Freelance writer and author John Micklos, Jr. contributed to this report.