Is Dual Language Immersion School Right for Your Child?

Classroom of students skypes across the globe.
Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

Recent decades have seen a rise in foreign language immersion schools, in which students are taught a second language as part of the regular school curriculum. Usually, the goal is that students will become comfortable speakers of the common language in their community (usually English in the U.S.) and the chosen language of the school.

What Are Foreign Language Immersion Schools?

Foreign language immersion schools are often public schools of choice.

These schools may be very popular with parents, and have waiting lists and lotteries to determine which children are admitted to the school. These are schools that are often sought out by parents.

Some school districts have chosen to make a local public neighborhood school a language immersion school. In this situation, all children who live within the school's boundaries may go to the school. If your local school is a language immersion school, you may have even greater concerns about this being the right choice for your child. If you did not personally make the choice for your child to attend this school by intentionally getting a home within the area, you may wonder what the benefits of a language immersion school might be.

Another type of public language immersion school is one that is meant to sustain a local culture. These schools exist worldwide. A few examples are the Gaelic culture schools in Ireland, Maori language schools in New Zealand and the American Indian and Alaska Native schools located throughout the rural American West.

These schools often have a large amount of community support.

The benefits are often obvious to members of these cultures, but may not be obvious to parents of children who are not members of the culture and do not plan to remain permanently living among the local culture.

Do Bilingual Kids Have a Proven Advantage?

Many people believe that studying a second language will make your child smarter in other ways.

This is known as the Bilingual Advantage Hypothesis. The reality is that scientific research does not clearly support the hypothesis.

"The evidence is mixed at best, and some evidence suggests that for younger children there is not a lot of strong evidence to support that hypothesis," says Dr. Erik Pakulak, a child neuroscience researcher at the University of Oregon Brain Development Lab. Dr. Pakulak also said "I would like to quickly turn around and say that there are so many other good reasons, both scientifically and culturally, for studying a second language as early as possible, that this doesn't mean you shouldn't consider an immersion school."

What Other Benefits Might Make Immersion School Worthwhile?

Our world is constantly changing. Increased globalization and the ease with which we can communicate today will likely lead to a future in which cross-cultural communication will only increase. Learning a second language and studying another culture in depth can provide useful skills for the workplace.

Businesses will need employees who not only understand a specific market's language but also how culture will impact the need for a product or service. Workers employed in the medical field will need to be able to communicate with travelers or people who are newly arrived in the nation.

Researchers will need to collaborate with their counterparts from other nations.

Children who learn about other cultures are able to develop greater empathy for others. Learning about another culture provides a window into how others view and relate to the world around them. Your child will learn that other people may relate to the world differently. This knowledge can help your child to bridge differences between people.

Knowing a second language can also be a confidence booster for a child. Learning a second language is a skill that takes a great deal of time and practice. Children who experience gains from putting in time and effort to master a skill foster a growth mindset, which creates resiliency.

Learning a second language at the earliest age possible will also give your child the greatest chance at developing fluency and native-like speaking ability. Research has repeatedly shown that the earlier a child is introduced to a language, the more likely the child will be to reduce their accent and learn the subtleties of the second language.

What If Your Child Has Special or Unique Needs?

If your child has special needs or a learning disability, you may wonder if a language immersion school is a good choice for them. While each child is unique, here are some considerations for different challenges:

  • Speech issues: A 2010 review of research published in the Journal of Applied Psycholinguistics suggests that children with speech and language impairment experience the same levels of success as typical children in language immersion schools. 
  • Hearing issues: Will your child be able to hear the differences between their first and second language? Being able to distinguish the sounds and intonations between languages is often critical to becoming multilingual. You may wish to speak with your child's specialists for further insight or to suggest modifications that would support your child in a dual language school.
  • Executive function issues: Several studies have suggested that children who are bilingual have enhanced executive functioning. This would also suggest that children who have executive functioning issues may benefit from learning a second language as a way to build in executive functioning skills. However, an immersion program may prove overwhelming to some children with ADHD or other executive functioning issues. You would want to learn more about the school and how they would meet the specific needs of your child.
  • English Language Learners: Data reported by Jennifer Steele in The American Educational Research Journal shows that English Language Learners children who attended a dual language school were less likely to be classified as an English Language Learner by middle school grade levels. This benefit was more pronounced for children whose native language was the second language offered at the school. What this suggests is that Immersion school can be beneficial to children who are learning English as a second—or even third—language.

About IEPs and 504 Plans in Immersion Schools

All publicly funded school districts must meet the educational needs of students with IEPs and 504 plans, according to federal law. A public language immersion school will likely offer services and accommodations for some special needs. If you're interested in having your child who is on an IEP or 504 attend a public language immersion school, you will want to meet with the school staff to find out how the school can meet your child's needs. Many times public schools of choice are able to share resources within the local school district to accommodate students with special needs.

Private dual language schools have no legal obligation to support or even accept special needs students. Some private schools choose to offer these services, or may specialize in meeting a particular special need. You will want to find out if your child qualifies for admission and how their needs would be met at school.

If Language School Isn't the Best Choice, What Alternatives Are There?

If you decide that a dual language immersion school isn't the right choice for your child, but would still like the benefits that come from studying a second language, you have further options:

  • Look for culture and language camps and clubs in your local area.
  • Explore language learning apps such as Duolingo or Mango Languages.
  • Learn a second language yourself, then share it with your child at home.
  • Watch children's television programs that are in another language. For example, several foreign language versions of Sesame Street are available to watch for free online. Search for the language of choice and "Sesame Street" to find episodes.

Getting the Best Results From Immersion School

Your child will gain the most benefits from language immersion school the younger they are. Keep in mind that even high school students and adults still benefit from foreign language study. If you feel that language immersion school is a good choice for your child, feel free to enroll them at the earliest opportunity.

Remember to be supportive of your child's dual language learning. You don't have to become fluent in the language yourself to create a positive home environment for learning the second language. Show a positive interest in what your child is learning and encourage your child to share with you about their school day.

Many language immersion schools offer parents information on ways to support language learning at home. Attending parent information nights and cultural activities for families held at the school will help you learn to provide the best support for your child.

Often, language immersion schools will let parents know about community events that can enhance the second language experience. For example, there may be a related cultural festival in a nearby community that your family could attend. A local restaurant may offer cultural foods and staff that speak the second language. Your child's teachers may also be able to recommend movies, books, and other media that the whole family can enjoy together.

A Word From Verywell

Having a child enrolled in a dual language program may require commitment from the whole family to provide good school support. Fortunately, you can also reap benefits while supporting your child. Not only will you get to share in your child's education, you can also learn a new language and culture. Language immersion schools often have strong parent communities that you can become a part of.

Bialystok E. Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy, and cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2001.

Carlson, Stephanie M., and Andrew N. Meltzoff. "Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children." Developmental Science 11.2 (2008): 282-98.

Duñabeitia JA, Hernández JA, Eneko A, et al. "The Inhibitory Advantage in Bilingual Children Revisited." Experimental Psychology 61.3 (2014): 234-51. Web.

Paradis J, "The interface between bilingual development and specific language impairment." Applied Psycholinguistics 31.02 (2010): 227. Web.

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