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Use Of Language Immersion Growing For Young Children In U.S.

January 5, 1987

HOLLISTON, Mass. (AP) _ Dianne Nault was teaching her first-graders words with ″m″ sounds. On the blackboard she wrote: monstre, maman, ami and moulin.

One impish student asked the word for teacher. The class giggled and cried in unison, ″Oui 3/8″

So Mrs. Nault added ″maitresse″ to the list.

The 26 children in the class at Fred W. Miller Elementary School are in their second year of a voluntary program called language immersion, in which the students do all course work in a foreign tongue.

Culver City, Calif., became the first American school district to adopt immersion in 1971. By 1983 an estimated 5,000 elementary school students nationwide were immersed in Spanish, French or German.

Today that number is about 9,000 students in 23 school districts with more on the way, according to Nancy Rhodes, a researcher at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington.

″People are realizing the importance of a second language ... for national security, for international business. We have to know a language other than English,″ said Ms. Rhodes.

Supporters of the method see it as a more natural and effective way to learn language than conventional repetition and memorization. They cite studies showing that immersion improves children’s performance in all their courses.

Holliston, a small district 30 miles southwest of Boston, began its immersion program in 1979. It now has 125 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Fifty youngsters in sixth and seventh grades who have been through the program take some classes in French to keep up their fluency. A Spanish immersion program is offered to fifth-graders.

In kindergarten, the teacher speaks French while the children can reply and converse in English as they build a basic vocabulary.

In first and second grades, only science, gym, art and music are in English, for about 20 percent of the school day, while the rest is taught in French.

Third-graders begin formal study of English along with their regular lessons ″en francais.″ By this time, they’ve already taught themselves English by what educators call ″decoding″ or using their French to solve the linguistic puzzles of English.

Bilingualism teaches children tolerance, said James Palladino, a Holliston elementary school principal. ″They learn there is more than one way to do things.″

Palladino is a font of stories about Holliston children going to Maine with their parents and translating for French-Canadians who lost their way, about kindergarteners singing French songs in their sleep, and about the boy who announced to a baffled friend, ″I’m cinq (five) today.″

Among immersion’s drawbacks is a lack of enough qualified elementary school teachers fluent in a second language. Also, the method is inappropriate for youngsters unable to master the basics of even their own language.

Among the advocates of immersion are the children themselves.

″You feel like you know something other people don’t,″ said Terry Febo, 8, who says she helps her 17-year-old sister study for French tests.

″It’s fun,″ said 7-year-old Jovan Conde, who says another language is useful for insulting prospective bullies without getting beaten up.

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