As the founder, and current Director of Admissions, of Escuela Bilingüe Internacional, a pre-kinder through 8th grade school in Oakland, California, I am frequently asked by worried, monolingual, English-speaking parents if their child will suffer emotional stress by being immersed in the Spanish language all day. Will my child feel welcome and understood? Will they be anxious when they aren't able to understand the teacher? What if my child is confused? Maybe my child will spend the year learning Spanish but won't learn anything else. What about content, like literacy, math and science?
While these concerns are understandable we have seen again and again that the most important factors in a child feeling welcome, safe and understood seldom have anything to do with language. Young children pick up on a myriad of other cues to gauge the safety of their surroundings. They will look at how their parents behave. Do their parents look and act worried? Maybe the child should be concerned about being left in this unfamiliar, new place.
Friendly teachers with welcoming smiles go far in making a child feel safe and welcome, even if those teachers never speak at all. The language that comes out of their mouth is secondary to the assuring demeanor they carry. Teachers in bilingual, immersion programs are trained to use multiple methods to get their points across to children new to the target language. They may use pictures, make gestures or act it out in order to help a child understand school routines and what is expected.
One of parents' biggest concerns stems from the fact that, as parents, we project our adult language woes onto our children. Children are rarely as inhibited as adults in trying out new language and they pick up pronunciation with ease. They are already used to not understanding everything they hear and young children still lack many words in their home language as well. For this reason, children learn the school's target language at an alarmingly fast pace. We see students at our school start kindergarten with no Spanish and finish the year with understanding and confidence in speaking Spanish. And all this while following a regular kindergarten program that includes literacy in both English and Spanish, science, math, as well as instruction in music, art and physical education.
While students gain the ability to understand their second language quickly, the ability to speak often takes a bit longer. While students are still adapting to speaking in their new language they are able to express themselves in English. The teacher will often translate what they have said back to them in Spanish. This allows for language learners to be active participants in class before their speaking ability has caught up.
So to answer all those parents' concerns I say: Your child should feel safe and welcome regardless of what language the teachers are speaking. There should be enough alternate forms of communication that your child should feel they know what is going on in the classroom and what is expected of them. Most importantly, your child will not only learn all of the content covered in a year of school but they will also have the amazing benefit of becoming bilingual. You and your child will never regret it.
Liza Sánchez is a California native who received her Masters of Education at UC Berkeley. She is the mother of four trilingual children who all grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the founder of Escuela Bilingüe Internacional, a Spanish-Immersion, Pre-K through 8th grade independent school located in Oakland and Emeryville.