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Robin’s Nest: What is the teacher’s role in a language immersion classroom?

Editor’s Note: I have asked Robin, a long-time bilingual educator, to write an occasional column for Hao Mama to provide another perspective for parents considering immersion education or just looking for advice on how to create a bilingual environment at home. Here’s her second installment (The first installment can be read here):

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ROBIN’S NEST
“A bird does not sing because it has an answer.
It sings because it has a song.”
- Chinese Proverb

Notes From Inside One Early Childhood Language Immersion Classroom

What is the teacher’s role in a language immersion classroom?

It is ironic that all the non-verbal teaching techniques are the ones that most successfully promote excellent language acquisition in a language immersion program. It will be most helpful to give you some examples of what this means.

At her bilingual school each morning three-year -old Allegra hugs her parents, says good-by in English and is warmly welcomed by her teacher in Chinese. She hangs up her coat and puts her lunch box in her cubby. Allegra checks the large board where the day’s schedule is written in Chinese and is happy to see that there will be a painting activity today and that her classroom task will be to water the plants. For now it is free choice time as all the children arrive. Allegra sees Andrew building a bridge with the wooden blocks; she likes Andrew so goes over and asks if she can join him. They speak together in English, but when the teacher rings her little bell Allegra and her classmates assemble on the colorful rug and their day begins. Greetings, calendar work, songs, directives, in fact everything during the day will be in Chinese.

Allegra does not speak Chinese. Her parents do not either. The school year has just begun a few weeks earlier. How will she manage? What makes it possible for her to function and learn and participate in such a relaxed and happy way? For most adults this would be an extremely stress-filled situation.

Allegra’s teacher is the most important influence in an immersion classroom. Immersion teaching techniques refine non-verbal communication. So when Allegra was greeted by her teacher in the morning, along with the Chinese language she saw a big welcoming smile and hug, Allegra felt her teacher was happy to see her. Immersion teachers often exaggerate body language, for instance, after a whole week when for the first time Allegra repeated the morning greeting to her teacher in Chinese, her teacher jumped up into the air, clapped her hands, looked and acted as though this was the most special moment of the day! Allegra could read her teacher’s being pleased with her and so felt confident enough to start her school day with a Chinese hello, albeit a soft whispered one the first time.

In the same way, Allegra could decipher the day’s schedule by reading the pictures next to the Chinese words, her photograph displayed next to her name in Chinese lettering shows her where her cubby is located, the sound of the bell means “meeting time,” a special song means it is time to clean-up and wash hands for snack, etc….

This brings up the second key to successful immersion teaching: the daily routine. When certain procedures happen every day and are accompanied by the same words and phrases, the children quickly catch on not only on what the routine and their role in the classroom are, but they soon recognize the language that signals this behavior whether it is sitting down for snack time, or starting to sing together after a certain cue, or clean-up time announcement, etc.

The third important factor for successful immersion language teaching requires a profound understanding and appreciation for the first stage of language acquisition which is passive language. Think about how babies acquire language. At first they get their needs met by crying in certain ways for certain things. They listen and listen and listen to the language in their environment and they start to babble on and on, beginning with trying to repeat what they hear like Mama and Bye-bye. Their parents and caregivers soon understand what the baby is saying and the baby feels understood and the language continues to evolve and develop. This early communication kernel between parent and child is the basis of language but also of feeling loved and cared for. Often someone outside the family will not understand but parent and child have coded their communication. This maternal language is fundamental to one’s well-being. The immersion teacher recreates this process by nurturing communication and understanding of the child even when the child is still passive with it. Forcing a child to speak before being ready will only injure communication and discourage future attempts. This passive acquisition stage is perhaps the most important and may seem to last a long time, in some cases most of the first year. But it is worthwhile respecting it. The passive language stage inspires that kernel of communication which is at the heart of language. Like the baby, a new language learner will start by repeating what is heard in the environment, in this case, in the Chinese immersion classroom.

This also presents a big problem for immersion teachers. Although a child’s usage of the target language may not be as evolved as the maternal language of the child, the brain and cognitive needs are more advanced. How to keep a child’s mind challenged when the language skills are not yet up to their potential?

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Meet Robin: For over twenty years I have been a French language teacher and lastly for seventeen years at the Washington International School in D.C. where I was French Immersion teacher in Pre-K for three and four-year-old children. I also served as the Coordinator for the Early Childhood Program there, which in addition to the four Pre-K classes (two Spanish Immersion and two French Immersion) included two French and two Spanish Kindergartens. We implemented the International Baccalaureate Organization Primary Years Programme, the French classes also implemented the French National Curriculum and all the classes implemented the NAEYC guidelines in addition to the regulations of the District of Columbia. It was strenuous and challenging, immeasurably fulfilling and an amazing passionate journey for me.

I would like to share this journey with you because I understand so well that you are looking for any and all information about raising your children bilingually. I can offer my experience and perspective. I am a very hands-on and hearts-on person rather than theoretical. To begin I will just talk about the classroom itself. In time I will address other issues such as teachers, the child’s experience, parents’ queries and concerns, etc. and eventually my visits to schools in China, Japan and India may offer a global perspective to early learning practices. I know you are targeting Chinese, and although my target language was French, my experience focused on the same dedication to bilingualism from parents and school perspectives.

Your comments and questions will guide me and are welcomed. I am fully admiring of your goals for your children and I would love to encourage and help in even a small way.

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