Bilingual learning keeps growing

Mandarin. Hmong. Spanish. French. German. Korean. Ojibwe: No, these aren’t ethnic dining options — they’re Minnesota elementary-school language-immersion programs, and one of them may be the perfect choice for your soon-to-be kindergartener.

Immersion education — in which all or most academic subjects are taught in a non-English target language — has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 20 years.

In Minnesota, the growth has been exponential. In 2004, there were 25 immersion programs in the state; now, more than 10 years later, 90-plus immersion schools are enrolling more than 25,000 students, said Tara Fortune, the immersion-program director at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition. 

In immersion programs, students don’t just learn a new language. Rather, the language becomes the lens through which required subjects — such as math, science, social studies and more — are learned. 

The result is a bilingual student with, educators argue, no less knowledge of the English language in the long term — and far more multicultural awareness throughout their lives.

Immersion advocates say the educational model will not only give Minnesota students a distinct edge in the workplaces of tomorrow, but also potentially narrow some of the pesky achievement gaps that hold back the state’s academically challenged kids.

‘Global citizens’

The Giovannelli family of St. Louis Park has been part of the immersion explosion in Minnesota. 

Lynn and Gino Giovannelli, who met in Vienna, Austria, shared a vision that their three sons would be bilingual. 

“Being global citizens is a value of ours,” Lynn Giovannelli said. “If there was any way for our kids to be bilingual, we wanted that for them.” 

Park Spanish Immersion (PSI), a K–5 school in the St. Louis Park school district, offered their oldest son, Marco, a good start on that vision. 

Like many parents, Lynn Giovannelli wondered how it would work to have her children learning in a language she doesn’t speak. 

“I remember having a lot of nervousness. It’s a huge leap of faith,” she said. “Those first couple years, they’re coming home with stuff you don’t understand. You’re the parent; you’ve been the primary educator. And now there are things you can’t help with. It definitely is a really weird feeling.” 

But the family has made it work by getting help from teachers, classmates and even a bit of self-reliance.

“You email the teacher, your little guy calls a friend. That’s actually pretty good: Kids have to figure it out, and that empowers them,” Giovannelli said.  

There’s also something extra-special about hearing your child speak fluently in another language, Giovannelli said.

“The first time you hear them speak Spanish, you’re swelling with pride,” Giovannelli said. “I think it’s a miracle when they come home speaking another language.”

All three Giovannelli boys ended up in Spanish immersion. 

Marco, now 15, is in his freshman year of high school; Luca, 12, is in middle school; and 11-year-old Stefano is in elementary school at PSI. 

Putting Spanish into practice

This past summer, Lynn Giovannelli and Luca shared a special adventure: They traveled to Costa Rica to vacation with a school friend of Luca’s who has family there. 

“My mom would need me to do things like go to the grocery. And it was pretty cool when people would say I spoke really well,” Luca said. “I made some friends down there and I could talk to them.” 

Luca said it took him awhile to catch up with native speakers’ rapid speech. 

Asked if he would put his own child in an immersion school, Luca said, “Yeah, I would, but I’d say, ‘Definitely travel to a Spanish-speaking country.’”  

For Giovannelli, traveling really reinforced the importance of a second language.

“This was not a tourist area; my not speaking Spanish was a deficiency,” she said. “I really relied on Luca.”  

Stories like Giovannelli’s make PSI Principal Corey Maslowski smile. 

“Our society is so global today. Sometimes [Americans] are surprised that such young children can learn another language; actually, they do that around the world, every day,” Maslowski said.

He strongly believes that immersion education works for most kids — as long as schools strive to meet each child’s needs. 

Maslowski is proud of the diversity of his school’s student body, and its teaching staff, too: He talks about a teacher from Spain, one from Panama, another from Venezuela. For Maslowski, there’s only one real priority — meeting the needs of his students. 

He regularly checks in with parents to make sure the school is doing just that. Like many successful schools, the word gets out: Parents have to enter their children in a lottery to get into PSI, and there’s a waiting list, too.  

Founded in 1996, the school’s been around long enough to see its first students now entering careers in Spanish-immersion education themselves, Maslowski said.

 


This past summer, Lynn Giovannelli and her 12-year-old son, Luca, traveled to Costa Rica. Because of Luca’s education at Park Spanish Immersion school in St. Louis Park, they were able to communicate with the local people — and Luca was able to practice his Spanish in a real-world environment. 

All types of learners

For Bobbi Jo and Tom Rademacher of St. Paul, choosing immersion education for their two children was a no-brainer. 

Bobbi Jo Rademacher has a professional background in immersion education: She taught at St. Paul’s 29-year-old Adams Spanish Immersion School and was a middle school English teacher at Yinghua Academy, a Chinese-immersion charter school in northeast Minneapolis founded by the parents of children adopted from China. 

Yinghua has been an excellent fit for the Rademachers’ daughter, Emily, now 10, and son, Eli, now 8. Both were both adopted from China. 

“I planned on [immersion education] before I knew my children would be Chinese,” Bobbi Jo Rademacher said. “I thought it would be Spanish immersion; for cultural reasons, it turned out to be Chinese immersion. We feel so lucky that Yinghua was an option for us.” 

Roughly half of the children at Yinghua are Asian-American; the other half are mostly Caucasian.

Rademacher believes that most children can succeed in an immersion system, even those with special needs. 

Though Emily excels academically, Eli has had some struggles with learning due to an auditory-processing disorder. 

“It shows up the same way in Chinese as in English,” Rademacher said. “He qualified for special ed last year.”

Eli likes school, even though it’s hard for him. He’s diligent in his work and wants to do well.

And, even though he’s a bit behind his peers in his learning, “struggling doesn’t outweigh the benefits of becoming bilingual,” Rademacher said.


Eli and Emily Rademacher, ages 8 and 10, both students at Yinghua Academy, a Chinese-immersion charter school for grades K-8 in northeast Minneapolis, have traveled to China twice with their parents, Tom and Bobbi Jo Rademacher. 

Reconnecting to culture

The Rademachers have traveled to China twice since their children entered Yinghua, and like the Giovannellis, spent significant time in areas where not knowing the language was a profound barrier. 

“Eli was able to negotiate on the streets (with street peddlers),” she said proudly. “When we were lost in Beijing, I threw up my hands … but Emily translated for us.”

Learning Chinese has helped the Rademacher children to take pride in their cultural identity and to forge meaningful ties to the Chinese families who fostered them before their adoptions. 

“Eli has a stronger identity connection than Emily,” Rademacher said.

In fact, Eli has become close to Emily’s foster family, despite the fact that none of them speak English. It’s yet another benefit, she believes, of Eli’s schooling at Yinghua.

Multi-faceted fun

Tara Fortune — one of the country’s foremost experts on immersion education today — began her career teaching high school German and Spanish in traditional classrooms. It wasn’t an environment she felt facilitated language fluency very much at all.

“There were such constraints,” she said. “I was competing with other subjects and extra curriculars.”

Her experience of teaching at Concordia Language Villages, where kids are fully immersed in the target language and culture for four consecutive weeks, showed her the power of immersion programming. 

“We used the language to teach the language. It was multi-faceted, experiential, fun. What the kids were able to do, acquire, was radically different from what we were able to do in a secondary classroom,” she said. “In four weeks, they gained more than they would have in a year [in a traditional classroom].”

Fortune says there are other benefits to immersion education, including important cognitive benefits, such as non-verbal problem solving. 

“Bilinguals develop more ways to approach a problem, to solve a particular problem. Task switching is easier for bilinguals — it comes from learning to switch back and forth between languages. They learn flexible and divergent thinking,” she said.

Wider world view

Rademacher advises parents who choose immersion to go in with an open heart.

“Immersion is such a gift to give your children,” she said. “It’s fun, it’s kid-friendly, with singing, dancing, culture-infused activities. And they become bilingual and bicultural.” 

It also has the power to help them imagine a world beyond Minnesota — and life as they know it in the U.S.

“It broadens their world view so much too,” Rademacher said. “They see that they are part of this bigger world. They hear someone else speak a different language; they’re interested. They’ll ask, 

‘Hey, what language are those people speaking?’”

When you learn a language, you learn the culture, Rademacher said.

“And that’s what I want for my kids.”  


Michele St. Martin is a freelance writer and editor, and a former editor for Minnesota Women’s Press and New Moon Girl Media. She lives in St. Paul with her husband and two teenage daughters.