Pre-K Language Immersion
Preschoolers at UCP East Orange Charter School sing a bonjour song to start the morning and call out vowel sounds and numbers with gusto in French. After just one year in the French Immersion class, the 4-year-old students easily toggle between English and French.
Their preschool teacher, however, speaks primarily French for 100 percent immersion. The children are like little sponges who soak up every new word, often asking for clarification with ‘how do you say…’.
UCP East Orange Preschool offers two immersion classes in French and Spanish, the latter began in the fall of 2019. The preschoolers are riding on the cusp of a global trend in Early Childhood Education to prepare children for an increasingly multilingual world.
Linguists believe the capacity to easily learn a second language begins in infancy and lasts until about age 10. Children who learn another language from an early age consistently show superior math and problem solving skills, verbal acumen and creativity, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
That’s why Manaka Nalla enrolled her son, Viraaj Vaddepally, in UCP’s Early Childhood French Immersion class last year. She speaks English, Hindi and Telugu and knows the importance of having the ability to easily translate thoughts into another language.
“It’s a great exercise for the brain and improves his (Viraaj’s) memory and concentration,” said Nalla.
Preschool Teacher Sophie Posey is also trilingual and grew up speaking French with her parents. She learned Spanish as a toddler when her family moved to Venezuela. She added English to her repertoire at 5.
“Learning new languages makes children more curious,” she said. “Curious children always want to learn more.”
Initially, Ms. Sophie began the class last year speaking in a mixture of English and French. However, this year she speaks primarily in French.
The inclusive classroom includes 17 children with and without disabilities. All children have an opportunity to participate. Even a non-verbal student is able to distinguish between the two languages by pushing a big red button to show the right answer when asked a question.
“It’s so fulfilling when you see the kids make the connection between French and English,” she said.
Michele Regalla, associate professor of English as a Second Language and World English Education at the University of Central Florida, launched the French immersion class at UCP two days a week for 30-minute sessions in 2014. That class led to the full-immersion program, which is partially funded through a $75,000 grant from the Caplan Foundation for Early Education.
Regalla, whose 4-year-old daughter, Angelina, is in the French Immersion class, said research has shown that infants as young as four months can distinguish between different languages and their native language.
“Learning a new language actually improves a child’s native language,” Regalla said. “The mental flexibility is helpful in cognitive development.”
The professor compares learning phonics to a tennis player who cross trains in other sports. She said English is a very non-phonetic language and learning it while tackling another language makes children more adaptable to accept phrases that don’t always follow rules.
Ms. Linda Coll, who teaches the new Spanish Immersion class, grew up speaking Spanish and English. If the class is stumped for an answer, Ms. Linda asks a native Spanish speaker to answer in Spanish. Then the class learns Spanish, as the 4-year-old learns the English word from her peers.
The 17 students deftly switch between both languages when learning the words of the week: horse, hat, hippopotamus. Linda knows the advantages of being bilingual in helping navigate a changing world and she wants to ensure her students master those same skills.