ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — In Ziyan Liu's first-grade classroom at Madison elementary, students play a game called "little translator." One student says a phrase in Chinese, then another student repeats the phrase in English, or vice versa.
A student proclaimed during "little translator" that she liked Chinese better than English because it's easier to understand.
The little voice delighted Jinya Wu, known by students and staff as Coco, who is the academic coach for the Chinese immersion program at Madison elementary.
"Chinese is a picture-based language and every picture has the same sounds," Coco explained.
For some students, the pictures and their prescribed sounds are more logical, unlike English where one letter can be multiple sounds, Coco said.
"It's good for those visual learning students," she said.
This year, about 215 students in kindergarten through ninth grade are participating in St. Cloud school district's Chinese immersion program, Guang Ming Academy, at Madison elementary, North Junior High School and Apollo High School. About 345 students are participating in the Spanish immersion program, Academia de Espanol Vista Clara; students begin the program at Clearview elementary, continue at South Junior High School, then take Spanish 4 or Advanced Placement classes at Tech High School.
The district is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Spanish and Chinese immersion programs, and planning events to celebrate the programs this spring, said Sue Linn-Hasbrouck, coordinator of immersion and world languages for the district.
Students who enrolled in the immersion programs the first year are now freshmen in high school. Madeline Preppernau, a freshman at Technical High School, started in the Spanish program during its inaugural year.
Preppernau said she remembers the class being small, maybe 14 students, but said she thinks it was similar to any other kindergarten education where students learn words, letters and numbers.
"I don't have anything to compare it to, but I think it was a typical kindergarten classroom," she said.
Preppernau said her favorite part about Spanish immersion was learning about celebrations, holidays and customs from Spanish-speaking countries. Sometimes during her elementary and middle school years, Preppernau said she wished she was doing what her friends in non-immersion classes were doing. That's since changed.
"Now, they want to do what I did," she said.
When her friends started learning Spanish in middle school, Preppernau said she realized how valuable her early Spanish education was.
"Some of them have asked me for help on their homework, and I think it is so simple," she said. "Their brains are already wired for English."
While Preppernau doesn't yet know what she wants to do for a career, she said she is grateful for the opportunity to be able to use her Spanish language skills in college and her future job.
"Even if it's not the main part of what I'm doing as a job, it's definitely a bonus," she said of speaking Spanish.
When students begin the program in kindergarten, they are quickly immersed into the language, Linn-Hasbrouck said. Teachers speak English and the immersion language during the first few weeks of school. Once students have demonstrated an understanding of the school routine, teachers switch to language immersion.
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Students can speak back to the teacher in English up until the second semester of first grade, then they are expected to communicate in the classroom language — either Spanish or Chinese.
"It's amazing how quickly the students adapt to an immersion environment and understand the teacher," Linn-Hasbrouck said.
When starting out, about 90 percent of the students' school day is in the immersion language, with the exception of music, art and physical education classes. In third grade, formal English instruction is added to the curriculum. Students are taught the same state standards as they are in English classrooms; the only difference is the students need to learn the immersion vocabulary first, Linn-Hasbrouck said.
"It's really similar to an English classroom. We're just delivering in another language," she said.
Benefits to students participating in immersion programs can include enhanced academic and linguistic performance in both languages, enhanced brain development, increased career and social opportunities, and an increased awareness and appreciation of other cultures.
"Learning a second language at an early age actually increases the synapses in the brain," Linn-Hasbrouck said. "We have seen the same results as research says: (Immersion) students perform at the same rate or better than English students."
In the district last year, students in third through eighth grade in the Chinese or Spanish immersion programs performed higher than the statewide average on both the math and reading Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.
Being taught in another language during elementary years doesn't hurt a student's learning of English, Linn-Hasbrouck said. Some students have difficulty with spelling in English at the start of third grade, but by the end of the year, most immersion students perform as well or better in English language art skills than non-immersion peers.
Starting the immersion programs in kindergarten is crucial.
"It's important for an immersion program to be introduced at 5 or 6 because their brains are more able to absorb the language," Linn-Hasbrouck said.
By the end of sixth-grade, students will have received more than 4,000 hours of Spanish or Chinese instruction, and most will be functionally proficient at writing, reading and speaking immersion language, according to Linn-Hasbrouck.
The number of students participating in immersion classes has increased dramatically since the programs started in 2007 with only 32 students. At Clearview elementary, there are three kindergarten sections of Spanish immersion.
"We always want to have three kindergartens," Linn-Hasbrouck said. "It's very important to have three kindergartens for the sustainability of the program."
The district's goal is to fill two kindergarten sections for Chinese immersion at Madison elementary.
Immersion programs are meant for non-native speakers, Linn-Hasbrouck said. If students want to join immersion programs after kindergarten or first-grade, they would need to go through an interview process to ensure they understand enough of the language to join the classroom.
Prepparnau said parents considering placing their children in immersion classes shouldn't hesitate.
"It's definitely worth it," she said.