Lansing's children engaging and connecting with language immersion programs

For many of us growing up, learning a foreign language meant sitting in a classroom, learning simple vocab words and conjugations in order to graduate. The new words, rules, and sounds were often fighting for space next to Algebra and Chemistry facts and once we passed, we forgot everything we learned. 

This is the process that many experts, teachers, and parents are now fighting against and why those in Lansing, both in schools and on their own, are introducing programs that will immerse children in a new language from a very early age. How early? Many Lansing programs are introducing new languages to children as young as newborns. 

Language Immersion
Aux Petits Soins, a French language immersion program for babies and toddlers, was started by Gaelle Cassin-Ross almost by accident. A French speaker, she only communicates in French to her children -- and when another mother overheard her, she asked if Gaelle could teach it to her children. Demand grew and the program expanded. 

"We don't speak one word of English," she says. They do however play games, use puppets, and cook. This interaction is at the root of immersion programs and Bridgette Cousineau, founder of the Las Lenguitas, uses this same technique in her Spanish program.  "You could listen to someone lecture in another language," says Bridgette, "And no matter how long you listen, you won't get it." The interaction component to learning language is key. At a young age, our brains are flexible and are able to infer the meaning the of words simply by using them. "You don't have to stand up and translate," says Gaelle, "Just say, 'I'm sad,' and make a sad face. They will get it." 

Both Gaelle and Bridgette have been met with similar questions about how children will understand the grammar and rules of a language without a textbook in front of them. "But," says Bridgette, "We don't teach a baby English grammar by putting a textbook in front of them. They have brilliant minds, wired to learn a language from birth."

And teaching the language that early, says Gaelle, gives them the chance to be truly multilingual as they learn to speak the sounds of the language without an accent. 

And, of course, in an immersion program, there's the element of necessity. Mariane Stepter, a teacher at Averill Spanish Immersion, sees this as a key element. "By totally immersing the kids in the language, they have to learn it, they have to get it.”

Averill Spanish Immersion school for K-3 follows a 50/50 model, they teach 50% Spanish and 50% English. Students spend half the day taking classes in one language, and half in the other. The program has been around for ten years and Marian has been with it since the beginning. In those ten years, the program has experienced some changes while they worked to make it the best fit possible for their students. It started as a 90/10 program and slowly adjusted until they reached the 50/50 model. This decision was based on the culture of their typical student. “We had a lot of kids that were struggling with English,” says Marian. “We get a lot of kids that just moved from Cuba or other countries, so we had to tweak it to benefit everyone.”

And, they are seeing success. "We have kids that are fluent by third grade," she says. 

Multilingual Benefits

The Lansing School District offers programs like this for the same reason Gaelle and Bridgette were compelled to begin theirs, being bilingual or multilingual offers countless benefits later in life. 

Overwhelming research shows that learning a language at a young age enhances a child's cognitive development. Studies have shown it increases critical thinking, creativity, and heightens IQ. It's also been shown that children who learn another language are simply better students and are less likely to develop conditions such as ADHD.  

But, in Bridgette's experience, a heightened IQ isn't the only side effect, it also raises their EQ, their emotional quotient or emotional intelligence. "It's easier to understand other perspectives when you have two perspectives yourself." They can understand and discuss cultural issues earlier and they just understand that people are different.  

The exposure to other perspectives and traditions also prepares kids for a world with countless cultures. Gaelle doesn't just want her children to be multilingual, she wants them to be multicultural. "A language is a passport to another culture," she says, and she wants her students to fully experience the culture that surrounds the language they are learning. She wants to give them the ability to survive in the world we live in today. That starts with acknowledging that it's important to not just be able to communicate, but also connect with people in other countries and cultures.

The other programs in Lansing are acknowledging this as well -- and is why the Post Oak Academy focuses on the whole child, from an academic, social, physical, emotional, spiritual, and cultural standpoint. Post Oak offers the option of a 50/50 Chinese Immersion program, where students in Pre-K to 6 can learn half the day in English and half in Chinese. 

The techniques and visions of these programs seem to be resonating through the community as all seem to be filling their programs without issue. Gaelle has even started wait-listing many students in order to keep up with demand, and Bridgette has cut the cost of her program in order to include more people. "I just want kids to have access to it," she says. 

Through these programs, the additional resources they offer and the alternative schools, Lansing is helping meet the needs of a growing and expanding world and the next generation that will be experiencing, interacting and communicating with that world. 


Allison Spooner is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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