Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wonderful or tragic?

 Intentional immersion...

A few friends called my attention to the NY Times piece about American children "thrown" into a Moscow elementary school. I found the video fascinating and poignant and even showed it to my English students. They liked it too, although they emphasized that it was NOT a typical Russian school!

Although I'm interested in bilingualism, the piece was about more than simply working hard to learn a language.

I found myself weeping a little bit over the contents, and I was musing about why. Obviously the whole experience of living in a place temporarily and making friends and then leaving would be emotional for anyone. But more than that, I think that the piece did a good job of portraying the language barrier in action. The frustration of not understanding the directions; the confused looks when you're making a mess of explaining yourself; the humility of being the only one who doesn't know what's going on, even if everyone around is kind to you.

 Just as compelling as the story itself is the comments section on the NY Times site. I found they ranged from "How beautiful" to "how cruel" to "No less interesting than what thousands of immigrants go through every day."

What a range of emotions! A few samples: click to continue/-

"We are Russians and have to send our kids to local school in US with American kids with no word in Russian. Do you think somebody is considering their feelings here?"

"Immersion was the way I learned, it hurt, it was embarrassing, but in 6 months I was fluent."

So here are a couple of questions for discussion:

1) Is this kind of immersion a good model for language-learning?

If you watch the end of the film, you see children who have become fluent in a second language (in 4 years) and are valued members of the new community, participating in extracurricular activities and having no shortage of social appointments...CONTRIBUTING!

 From this point of view you could say it was successful. But the article mentioned some behind-the-scenes struggles: for example, the bullying, which was caught on videotape and then discouraged. Without the emotional support and the intervention of caring adults, the social environment of a classroom in a new culture can be very difficult to navigate.

2) Is this model better than the current approach in U.S. school systems?

As far as I understand, immigrants to the U.S. normally attend special ESL classes or even bilingual classes, which, intentionally or non-intentionally, keeps them apart from their peers. This is meant to help their transition, but I wonder if it really does them a disservice. Consider the following comment to the article:

"While I don't think the parallel to immigrant children in America is exact, I do think the story supports my longstanding critique of bilingual education for foreign-born children. I tutored many immigrant children from Latin American countries, most of whom were taking all their classes (even here in Minneapolis) in Spanish. Not only did they fall behind in level of instruction for math and science, they didn't learn any English, and the classes kept them separate from American kids who might have become their friends. The kids who came from less-popular countries, like Russia or Afghanistan, had no bilingual classes -- they were dumped in with the English-speaking kids. And guess what? They did okay. It was a struggle, but like the writer's children, those kids caught up and excelled. They also made friends who could and did help them with English. They joined sports teams. They were totally "normal" kids. I genuinely believe the Spanish-speaking kids were done a terrible disservice by being segregated into classes taught in Spanish. Bilingual education, in my opinion, assures that immigrant children will not assimilate into society" 

I wonder what would happen if we challenged language learners academically by letting them learn with their peers, while putting energy instead into helping ease the social/emotional aspects of the transition?


  1. Of course it didn't seem cruel to me, but WONDERFUL! HOW I wish I'd had the opportunity to learn another language when I was young! Schools, imbecilically, attempt to do language teaching by starting classes (not the best way to learn) at the point when a person can no longer easily learn a new language - at about age 12. That is beyond stupid.....and yet, the once or twice a week Spanish I had as a young child was ridiculous.

    Apart from Ilya, who was too old to easily learn English when he arrived (13) our kids learned English easily without forgetting Russian. Socially it was somewhat difficult, but less difficult than the school experience of any child with learning disabilities. Imagine having to be in a setting for six hours a day where the emphasis is on doing the one thing you cannot do well? BUT, with little or no chance of that every really changing? Those are the children I feel sorry for.

    I have to say, that I wish this family had remained in Russia....but I suppose I'm just envious.

  2. I found this article very interesting. I live in Finland and am originally from Hungary and couple of years I was babysitting at a Finnish family living in Hungary, so kind of saw both sides. I think the method to mix foreign children with local children can be very useful and helpful to speed up their language education. Although it should be a school with open-minded local parents who teach their children at home to tolerate people from other cultures.

  3. "...doing the one thing you cannot do well." Annie, so well-said! I feel that with the immersion approach, language can be the vehicle to learning, and not the end in itself. Of course, if a student is the only one doing the language-learning, he at least needs some allies.

    Monika, thanks for commenting! I agree that adult intervention is needed, to keep the social environment under control. A little patience from the "locals" helps ease the anxiety of being a new arrival, still learning the language.


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