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Children dive into language 'Immersion': Some Maryland schools are joining an experiment in exposing elementary school children to intensive training in a foreign tongue.


When first- and second-graders at Huntingtown Elementary School in Calvert County say "ohio," they aren't learning American geography. They are saying "good morning" -- ohayo gozaimasu -- in Japanese.

Foreign language in elementary school used to mean little more than singing cute songs and counting to 10. No more.

Spurred by the realities of a rapidly changing world, educators and parents are enrolling children in "immersion" classes that teach youngsters to read and write in a foreign language before they do so in English.

Four such classes -- in Japanese, Spanish and French -- started during the past two years in Maryland. The state has 13 programs, including the country's first French immersion program, which was begun in Montgomery County in 1974. Nationwide, there are 190 immersion programs.

"Parents know we're going into the 21st century and the world has shrunk," said Dr. J. David Edwards, executive director of the National Council for Languages and International Studies in Washington. "It's not about academe. It's about parents wanting jobs for their kids."

Not every parent or school system is rushing to "immersion." Carroll County is holding off because administrators there want foreign languages besides Spanish in the middle schools before bringing them to the elementary level.

Harford County wants to involve as many students as possible. The school system's lone Russian teacher rotates among three different elementary schools each week.

Concerns over cost and educational priorities have kept Baltimore City and Howard County from starting immersion programs.

Other school systems worry about perceived elitism and see the technique as risky. Success hinges on good bilingual teachers, a supportive principal and active parents.

Still, schools are turning to "immersion" because few educational programs can transform students as this approach can.

At Huntingtown Elementary, posters of Kyoto temples adorn classroom walls, morning announcements teach a different Japanese phrase every week and students dining in the cafeteria can take off their shoes and sit on bamboo mats in a tatami room donated by the Japan-America Society.

All this in a county with no Japanese restaurant and, according to the 1990 census, 22 Japanese residents out of a population of 51,000.

"Immersion" in Japanese culture is the basis of the program, funded by a two-year federal grant. Every day for 45 minutes, about 140 first- and second-graders -- a sixth of the student body -- learn to add and subtract in Japanese.

During a recent class, teacher Kayako Iwasaki wrote "40 + 2 = " on the blackboard, read the equation in Japanese and expected an answer in Japanese.

She didn't have to worry. Hands shot up, and second-grader Jereme Brown stated confidently, "yong ju ni" -- 42.

"Their ear is very good. Their pronunciation is very good -- the same as Japanese kids," said Ms. Iwasaki, 33, a native of Tokyo and resident of the United States for the past five years.

Parents' initial reaction to immersion is that children won't understand, that they'll get frustrated and fall behind. Marie-Cecile Louvet, who taught the country's first French immersion class in Montgomery County, said that's not the case with children.

"I have had parents say, 'How cruel can you be? How can you teach a child who doesn't know the language?' " Ms. Louvet said.

"His parents asked him later how was the class. He said, 'My teacher is nice; she doesn't speak English, but we'll teach her.' "

Immersion originated in Montreal in 1965 with parents who wanted their children to speak French and become bilingual. Subsequent studies have shown it is the best way to learn a language. It also sharpens critical thinking skills and helps students understand another culture, educators say.

In Anne Arundel County, parents aren't disputing the pedagogy of the new French immersion program at Crofton Woods Elementary.

They are concerned, instead, about the side effects of segregating a class of 30 students from kindergarten to fifth grade.

One mother sent her daughter elsewhere because she feared Crofton Woods' English program would deteriorate. Another parent believed the program would elevate one group over another.

Others questioned spending money on a pilot that benefits a few students when some schools can't afford textbooks and copy paper.

"I think it's a good program, I just don't think it's the best allocation of money," said Richard Zipper, a Crofton resident who circulated a petition protesting the program. "We're living in times when the money is tight and the inequity is too great."

Ken Nichols, the county's director of instruction, said money shouldn't be an issue because the school system has to hire a teacher for every 30 students and buy materials regardless of whether it is in the immersion program. The difference is that a bilingual teacher would be hired for each immersion class through the fifth grade.

Similar infighting divided Oakview Elementary School in Silver Spring. Squabbles over money ended with parents forming separate PTAs, one for French, another for English.

The school became overcrowded. There was a lawsuit. Eventually, the school board moved the program to its current home at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville.

Myriam Met, foreign language coordinator for Montgomery County schools, said a community needs to decide what it wants from a foreign language program -- fluency or proficiency.

"There's no one right way to do education. There are right programs for certain communities," said Ms. Met.

Leah Darring was among the first immersion students in Montgomery County. She remembers hard classes but never felt smarter or different from her schoolmates. She downplays the experience, even though she's fluent in French.

"It's something I'll always have," said Ms. Darring, 23, a second-year law student at George Washington University. "Even if I lose the language, I'll remember the culture."

Nearly half of the 700 students at Roger Heights Elementary in Prince George's County are in the French magnet program. Sixty signed up for kindergarten this year, leaving about 20 on the waiting list.

By the time these kindergartners reach sixth grade, they will read 100-page books, solve geometry problems and learn world history in French. Their biggest test will come when their sixth-grade class travels to Quebec City for a week, staying with French-speaking families. This year's sixth-graders say they aren't nervous.

"It's like our natural language," said Jeremy Weiss, 11, of College Park. "It's not that difficult."

Jeremy and his classmates can continue immersion classes at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Forestville and Central High School in Capitol Heights.

After years of watching the program work, Roger Heights principal Jacquelyn O'Neill believes immersion gives students more than just a second language.

"It develops them more fully as people," she said, "and that's what education is all about."

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