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Op-ed: Keep Utah's language-skills momentum going through high school

Published January 23, 2016 3:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In 2008, with the passage of Senate Bill 41, the state of Utah made a firm commitment to educating its children in the public school system in two languages. Since then, Utah's Dual Language Immersion Program has grown to include five languages (Chinese, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish) in 138 schools reaching some 29,000 students in grades 1 through 8. The first cohort of immersion students is now enrolled in Advanced Placement courses and will take the Spanish AP exam at the end of ninth grade.

Utah State Sen. Steve Urquhart endorsed Utah's Dual Language Immersion Programs in 2013, describing it as "What's Right With Utah Ed." He got it right. A number of states, including Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Montana and Wyoming, have replicated Utah's 50-50 two-teacher model for grades 1-6: Half of the school day, students receive instruction from their English teacher, and the other half they are taught by the target language teacher.

Does this work? Can students learn math in Spanish or German or Chinese? Unequivocally, the answer is yes: Students in Utah's dual immersion programs perform as well or better than their non-immersion peers in core subjects such as language arts and math. And they are acquiring another language, key to global citizenship and to success in a global job market.



Success tends to generate challenges, and Utah's dual language immersion project faces an urgent one: Students who complete a world language AP course and exam in ninth grade will have no more high school language courses available to them.

Which brings us to "sustaining what's right with Utah education." To bridge the imminent language education gap between 9th grade and enrollment in college, the University of Utah is seeking support from the 2016 Legislature on behalf of a state-wide public and higher education alliance.

Sen. Howard Stephenson (who sponsored the 2008 dual immersion bill) and Rep. Eric Hutchings will co-sponsor the "Utah Dual Language Immersion Bridge Bill." If funded, this bill will secure the development and delivery of year-long language courses in grades 10-12, which will be offered at high schools by Utah's four-year institutions of higher education.

Students who complete the bridge courses will enter college with up to nine credits of upper division language, putting them on a path toward completing a university language minor or major. These students will also be ideally positioned to combine a language major with another academic or a professional degree.

No other state has systematically addressed the challenge of sustaining dual language immersion from elementary to secondary level. Commonly, students are merged into traditional foreign language courses. Often, they discontinue their formal language study and, not surprisingly, their foreign language capacity deteriorates. It takes a long time to acquire proficiency in a second language, but hardly any time to lose it.

Utah's foreign language educators have recognized that coordinating language study across all levels of education requires a focused and concerted effort. The Utah dual immersion alliance spans public and higher education, and includes all seven Utah colleges and universities, led by the University of Utah. Our goal is to make Utah the nation's leader for articulated language education from first grade through college.

The state of Utah, immersion students, their families, teachers and school administrators have made an enormous investment in dual language immersion. Now is the time to make sure we don't squander the opportunity to make our students truly bilingual, biliterate and bicultural global citizens who successfully face the challenges of the 21st century.

Johanna Watzinger-Tharp, Ph.D., is associate professor of linguistics, senior adviser in the Office for Global Engagement and director at International Studies Program at the University of Utah.

 

 

 

 

 

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