Riding the bilingual bandwagon


A wave of teaching children foreign languages in schools from an early age has emerged nationally as well as in the Puget Sound area.

The 2006 U.S. Census Bureau states that 32.5 percent of the families in Federal Way — the highest percentage in the state in terms of population — speak a language other than English at home.

Due to the city’s extensive diversity, the Federal Way School District’s language programs focus mainly on the non-English speaking students by offering immersion programs such as English Language Learners (ELL).

Yet, the exposure to other languages for English speakers is reserved for high school students, and specifically for those who wish to pursue a college education. The school district, like most across the country, follows a traditional curriculum that offers foreign language instruction as an elective at the high school level.

Due to the growth of cultural diversity in the region, local school districts have implemented language immersion programs where children are being taught in English for half of the day and in a different language for the other half.

In 2000, the Seattle Public Schools implemented language immersion programs in Spanish and Japanese at a school named after a previous superintendent, John Stanford, who in 1996 proposed making it mandatory for students to study a second language.

John Stanford Elementary, a kindergarten to fifth-grade school in the Wallingford neighborhood, has become so popular among parents that the district is planning on adding 10 more “international” schools — six elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools — throughout the city within the next five years.

“I see tremendous things happening with these kids that go beyond languages,” said Kelly Aramaki, principal at John Stanford Elementary.

“This type of education is critical in allowing kids to become global citizens. By learning another language, they’re making a statement about themselves by showing people that are not English speakers that they’re valued as well,” he said.

As for the cost of the program, “we get the same amount of money as any other elementary school, but we also do a lot of fundraising,” Aramaki added.

If a particular school in the Federal Way School District started a bilingual immersion program, the school would receive the same funding from the district, but the money’s distribution would have to change.

Todd Beamer High School principal Joshua Garcia said the state offers formulas and funding for basic education, but that it’s up to local districts to provide for their programs and decide how to exert them.

Valuable skills:

The teaching of foreign languages in this country has commonly been reserved for kids with a high intellect, rather than as a survival tool for communication as it’s seen in many European nations, said Paula Patrick, vice president of the National Network for Early Language Learning.

“The old mentality is that foreign languages are only important if colleges expect our children to have them. With the job market being so competitive, we have to think what we can do so we can graduate students from a school system from a competitive edge,” Patrick said.

Many jobs nowadays focus on hiring people who speak more than one language, Patrick said.

Attorneys are looking to hire people who speak multiple languages instead of spending extra money on interpreters. Police forces seek more officers that speak other languages so they can have a better connection with people, and even hospitals are giving priority to bilingual doctors, Patrick added.

“Even for the country’s own security, it’s very difficult to rely on interpreters. Why be at the mercy of other people when we should be in control of our own situation?” she said.

Some schools in Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma offer parents the option of a more international curriculum for their children, beginning in kindergarten.

“We need to educate parents of what the world will look like in 2020 with multiple languages being spoken. If we can teach our children a language at an early age, why put them at a disadvantage 20 years from now?” Patrick said.

Immersing children:

Susan Patel, founder of Lil Linguist Learning Center in Federal Way, said that children who are exposed to a different language before age 5 acquire better critical thinking skills and increase their cognitive development.

“If we could start exposing our children to other languages in preschool and continue this through elementary school, it would be ideal,” Patel said. “But it’s a huge task to take on to change our public system.”

Maria Lopez is in charge of the Spanish story times held at various King County libraries throughout the year.

During a Spanish story time held Feb. 19 at the 320th Library in Federal Way, she entertained children with a vast repertoire of stories, songs and dances — completely in Spanish.

“Learning another language is essential for our children,” Lopez said. “Parents don’t necessarily have to know the language in order to create a culture of language learning at home.”

The school districts that support bilingual immersion programs all begin in kindergarten through fifth grade. Other schools, like the ones in the Bellevue School District, give their students the option of continuing with this program through middle school and high school.

Federal Way School District Superintendent Tom Murphy said that 15 years ago, the district’s then-assistant superintendent considered these types of language immersion programs, but was unable to get enough support to put it forward.

“This topic is in the school board’s agenda,” Murphy said. “We are looking at the cost and benefits of the program, and will eventually have to do a lot of research to consider whether this is something we should do.”

Contact Aileen Charleston: or (253) 925-5565.

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