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English and Spanish Speakers Learn Together, and From Each Other

Myra Olmeda instructing a student in Spanish
Myra Olmeda instructing a student in Spanish

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This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

In the last ten years, hundreds of American schools have begun to offer a new way to teach foreign languages. This method is called dual or two-way immersion.

Here is how it works at London Towne Elementary School in Centreville, Virginia, outside Washington. In some classes, only Spanish is spoken, even during the Pledge of Allegiance -- a morning tradition for American schoolchildren.


And this is a second grade class where the children learn math and other subjects completely in Spanish.


Later in the day they learn only in English. Half of the children are from families that speak Spanish at home. The other half are native English speakers. Myra Olmeda is the teacher.

MYRA OLMEDA: "So what happens is when these both groups [come] together, they're learning, you know, one from the other -- which is the greatest thing that is happening."

Helen Arzola teaches the youngest children.

HELEN ARZOLA: "A child before eight is a language learning machine. That's their reason for being, for the most part. So this is the time to learn a language."

She says her kindergarteners from English-speaking families may have never heard Spanish before. And she says children from Spanish-speaking families benefit from learning in their own language.

HELEN ARZOLA: "The goal of the dual-language program is to teach low-income Hispanic children English -- good English, social English and academic English. And that can only happen if they have a good, solid foundation in their first language."

But some people are still not sure about these programs. They say bilingual education has not always taught Hispanic students enough English. K.C. McAlpin is executive director of a national nonprofit group called Pro-English.

K.C. MCALPIN: "The experience of history has made us a bit skeptical, OK? Because it's another thing that sounds like on the surface is a great idea."

London Towne Elementary is in Fairfax County, Virginia. The county also offers immersion programs in French, German and Japanese.

One sixth grader at London Towne says it's not like traditional teaching.

DANIEL SHANK-ROWE: "It's really just like being in the environment where everyone's talking Spanish. You just catch on."

Another student says she likes to learn other languages. But a national survey found that in recent years foreign language teaching decreased in public elementary and middle schools. Fewer schools teach French, German, Russian or Japanese.

Some schools say a federal education law from the last administration has hurt language teaching. This law only requires testing of progress in math and reading. Schools also face language teacher shortages, and now budget cuts caused by the economy.

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report. You can watch a video of this report by Jerome Socolovsky at I'm Steve Ember.