In the East Bay area, where many parents want a global education for their children, you as a parent have many options to expose your child to a foreign language.
One key questions you need to ask yourself as you decide between schools is this: what is my goal for my child’s language acquisition – and how does it match with the schools I can choose from?
At AIM, our goal is full bilingualism: we want children to understand, speak, read and write in both languages. We know, from experience, that full bilingualism requires a specific approach, which we have implemented at AIM.
Starting early.The younger your child is when he is introduced to his second language, the faster, more naturally he will learn. We strongly encourage parents to enroll toddlers in our Infant Community; for preschoolers, we recommend starting right at age three. While 4- and 5-year-olds can still become fully bilingual much more easily than older children, it requires a longer adjustment period, and may delay some of their other developmental milestones, such as learning to write and read in English.
Full immersion.Many schools offer Spanish, French or Mandarin as an occasional, 2-3 times per week, or one hour a day activity. While this is better than nothing, it will not enable a child to actually speak a second language as a preschooler. In most Montessori preschool programs, if another language is introduced, it happens in a dual-teacher, dual-language environment: one teacher (usually the Montessori-trained head teacher) speaks English, and another teacher (usually the less-experienced assistant teacher) speaks the second language. This approach is better than the occasional class, but it usually fails in getting children to speak the second language: English is already the dominant cultural language, and if the lead teacher speaks English, it becomes the de facto classroom language. Children may learn to understand what the assistant teacher says, but they will rarely use the other language actively.
In contrast, at AIM, we offer a full immersion program. For toddlers, this means 100% target language, all day: the only languages spoken in our Infant Community are Japanese and Chinese, and our 3-year-olds emerge speaking both languages well. In the Children’s House programs, the entire morning (9 am – 1 pm) is taught exclusively in Chinese or Japanese: both teachers speak only the target language, and children are expected, over time, to speak to teachers and peers only in those languages. In the afternoon (for children ages 4 and older, who do not nap), we introduce English by bringing in another teacher whose entire relationship with the children is in English. Often, one of the morning teachers will remain with the class and continue lessons and interactions in Chinese or Japanese.
Our leadership team and several of our teachers have worked in other settings, and several of our families have moved with us to AIM from schools that had different immersion approaches. We can tell, from repeated, personal experience, that full immersion is the only way to go if you want your child to acquire full bilingualism.
A program that continues through the elementary years in AIM’s private school Montessori classroom.To make a second language a sustained part of your child’s life, you need to ensure that your child becomes literate in that language. This means he needs to continue to use and study the language for several years of his elementary schooling, no matter what language he learns. Literacy begins at AIM in Montessori preschool – but it blooms fully in our private school program. With other, alphabetic languages, such as French or Spanish, after school or specialist classes on weekends may be sufficient to achieve literacy, as skills learned in English translate reasonably well. Not so for pictorial languages like Japanese or Chinese: becoming a writer and reader in these languages is such a demanding endeavor that only an integrated, bi- or tri-lingual program is up to the task.
That’s why, in 2012, we switched our Montessori elementary classroom to an all-day immersion environment. We’ve invested in staffing the room with three fully trained Montessori elementary teachers, one of whom is a native speakers in each language (Japanese, Chinese, English). All day long, children receive lessons and speak with each teacher exclusively in that teacher’s language. We are in the process of translating the entire Montessori elementary curriculum into both Japanese and Chinese – something that, to our knowledge, has never been done, anywhere in the world!