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 little ones 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 7 ways to help your child succeed in an immersion program.
1. Try to teach key words: For some kids, entering kindergarten can be a scary time! New routine, new place, new friends, new teacher, 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 team-taught a summer immersion preparation camp for incoming kindergarten Mandarin immersion students. In the beginning, I remember one boy had cried (poor thing) because he needed to use the bathroom and thought that nobody could understand him because myself and my team teacher were only speaking Chinese. 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, and water. Add any other words that are specific to your child’s needs.
2. Learn with your child: Parental involvement and support is critical for children entering immersion programs. Once you make the decision with your child to enroll them in an immersion program, parents should begin a degree of language study themselves. As a non-native parent teaching my chid, 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, 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 such as Smart Canary card games are a great way to engage your child in a fun way while practicing reading, listening and speaking skills in the target language!
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.
3. 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.
4. Don’t force your child to “show that they can speak” the language to friends, relatives or peers: As proud as you will undoubtedly 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 and awkward! Resist the temptation to do this, even if it’s for grandma!
5. 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 attends church in French and sometimes in Mandarin, and it’s a wonderful experience and also a good resource. If you’re in an area like DC, NYC, London, or Paris, check with the local embassy! For example, 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!
6. 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. This expense is probably coming out of her own pocket. Advocate for your child and her teacher- become an active member of the PTA and help raise funds to support your schools immersion programs. Sincerely ask her what she needs and try your hardest to involve other parents and help her out!
7. Immersion travel: 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. They also have adult immersion programs, as well. If you live in a major metropolitan area, chances are there are also immersion summer camps right in your own backyard.
I hope these tips were helpful for families at any point in their child’s immersion education journey! What’s been useful for helping your child succeed in their immersion program?