Helping your Child Succeed in an Immersion Program
Has your lucky little one made it into an immersion program this year? I bet when you got that notification, it felt like choruses of angels started singing all around you. You did the research, made the family decision to enroll your student in an immersion program, survived the lottery, made the commitment and… you’re in! Whew. School’s starting. Now what? For children without a degree of proficiency or familiarity with the language of the program they’ll be starting, it can be a bit of a shock. Here are a few ways to help your child succeed in an immersion program or a new language environment.
Try to teach key words
For some kids, entering kindergarten can be an apprehensive time! New routines, new places, new friends, new teacher… and a new language? Some children may feel a degree of trepidation or stress if they think nobody can understand them and they can’t communicate their needs. I remember one experience as a teacher that I had. One student cried and cried because he needed to use the bathroom and didn’t say anything because he thought that nobody could understand English. What a stressful experience for that little boy! If possible, before school starts or at the very beginning, try to teach your student a few important words in the language like bathroom, sick, hungry, help and water. Add any other words that are specific to your child’s needs.
Learn with your child
Parental involvement and support are critical for children entering immersion programs. Once you make the decision with your child to enroll them in an immersion program, it’s ideal for parents to begin a degree of language study themselves. As a non-native parent teaching my child, I know that there will most likely come a day (or at least I hope!) when she surpasses our language skills. Let’s be real- I don’t understand chemistry in English and it’s not going to happen in any other language. But for time being, model a positive and enthusiastic attitude toward language learning and make it a fun family project to learn together! Games are a great way to engage your child in a fun way while practicing reading, listening and speaking skills in the target language!
Model failing forward
Your child is being put in a situation where they are going to have to learn to be comfortable making daily mistakes in order to thrive. Have a conversation about this with them in advance! You can also model this as you make sincere efforts to learn alongside them. When you make a mistake, correct it if you notice, just keep going, don’t berate yourself or make a big deal out of it and laugh and have fun!
It’s also important to note that many schools will provide resources for parents of children in immersion programs, specifically designed to help parents keep up with their students. Talk to your child’s teacher as she may be able to provide you with some resources.
Plan ahead for language needs
Parents have so many different balls in the air, and even if language learning is a priority for you and you’re trying to keep up with your child, you may just simply lack the time to learn at the same pace as your child. Speak with your child’s teacher about what vocabulary is most important for you to know, based on your students’ strengths and weaknesses. You can also ask her about future curriculum and vocabulary, and start learning ahead of schedule. Summer break is a great time to get a head start on language needs for next year and to review material from the previous school year.
Don’t make your child “perform”
Don’t force your child to show that they can speak the language to friends, relatives or peers. As proud as you undoubtedly will be of your budding linguist, forcing her to speak or putting too much pressure on her to “perform” for others can cause her to associate negative or uncomfortable feelings with the language. Learning a second language through immersion can be stressful enough! Who wants to be suddenly put on the spot to say something in a language they’re just learning? That’s nerve-wracking. Resist the temptation to do this, even if it’s for grandma!
Engage in activities in the target language outside of school
For some kids in immersion programs, the only interaction they have with the language is in school and with their homework. Pick a couple activities that your child loves (like soccer or an art class) and see if you can’t find that class in that language! If you live in a large metropolitan area, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find something. Check with your city and close by counties, social websites like Meetup.com, or check out local newspapers or magazines in the language you’re looking for (you can get someone to help you read, if you need). Our family sometimes attends church in French or Mandarin, and it’s a wonderful experience. If you’re in an area like DC, NYC, London, or Paris, check with the local embassy! Alliance Française is very active in many cities and has loads of resources for families, even a small library with French children’s books! Many immersion schools also have vibrant after school programs in the target language, which could be a great answer for you, especially if you work outside the home and need after school care anyway. Finally, your child’s teacher may also know of some resources, so don’t be shy about asking. Remember, one of the best things your child can do is to develop friendships in the target language!
Support your child’s teacher and school
Being an immersion teacher requires extra work, time and expense. Resources and curriculum are scarce in languages outside of English in the US. While some major cities, are getting started on developing common core curriculum in Spanish (like New York City), the reality is that your child’s teacher has to go the extra mile and beyond to create lessons, even with great resources like Teachers Pay Teachers. This expense is probably coming out of his own pocket. Advocate for your child and her teacher- become an active member of the PTA and help raise funds to support your school’s immersion programs. Sincerely ask him what he needs and try your hardest to involve other parents.
Instead of the regular vacation this year, why not take an immersion vacation? By showing your child that her language skills are not theoretical and that there are millions of other people who speak that language, you could help a fair-weather student see the relevancy in their lives. Bonus: you get to travel somewhere other than an amusement park, perhaps, say the south of France? Some places, like Quebec even have immersion camps for kids learning French, but you don’t have to find a camp necessarily. Head anywhere you like! If you can’t afford to leave your home country, there may still be options for you. Places such as Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota offer immersion programs in 12 different languages with some programs starting as early as age 2, and some that include the entire family.
Hopefully these tips are helping for families beginning their student’s immersion journey!
What has been useful for helping your child succeed in an immersion program?
About the author: Alexandria Scott is a writer, educator and community advocate who helps readers better connect students and educators as well as children and parents to access and internalize multicultural and anti-bias education. She is the editor of Ditto Kids.