Frequently Asked Questions about Immersion Education

What Parents Want to Know About Foreign Language Immersion Programs ~ Tara W. Fortune, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota and Diane J. Tedick, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Minnesota

This digest answers some of the most common questions that parents and others ask about foreign language immersion education:

  • What is a foreign language immersion program and how does it work?
  • Why should I consider enrolling my child in an immersion program?
  • How will learning everything in a second language affect my child's English language and literacy development?
  • Will my child become proficient in the second language? How long will that take?
  • Is immersion an appropriate choice for all children?
  • What can I do to support my child's immersion experience if I don't speak the second language?

What is language immersion education?

Due to the historical and current misuse of the term "immersion," we offer the following clarification and definitions to clearly identify the most common types of language immersion programs:

Definition of Key Terms and Acronyms:

Minority language
A language other than the one spoken by the majority of people in a given regional or national context, for example, Spanish in the U.S., Basque in Spain, English in Japan, etc.
Majority language
The language spoken by the majority of people in a given regional or national context, for example, English in the U.S., Spanish in Spain, Japanese in Japan, etc.

L1 = First language
= Second language

Core Characteristics of Immersion Education

  • Additive bilingualism with sustained and enriched instruction through the minority language and the majority language is promoted
  • Subject area instruction through the minority language occurs for at least 50% of the school day during the elementary school years
  • Teachers are fully proficient in the language(s) they use for instruction
  • Support for the majority language is strong and present in the community at large
  • Clear and sustained separation of languages during instructional time

What is the difference between foreign language immersion and dual language immersion programs in the U.S.?

In addition to the core and variable characteristics cited above, the following two main program types are currently found in the US: one-way (foreign language immersion) and two-way (dual language immersion). Each of these program types are further distinguished by the characteristics identified below:

Distinguishing Characteristics of One-way (Foreign Language) Immersion Programs

English-dominant child

Bilingual: Spanish (L2) and English (L1)

  • Foreign language immersion programs are sometimes referred to as partial versus full/total immersion, early, mid or late, etc.
  • Student population consists of majority language speakers with limited to no proficiency in the immersion (minority) language, e.g., English speakers in U.S. schools
  • Exposure to the immersion language takes place primarily in the classroom and school
  • The immersion language may target a more commonly taught language (e.g., Spanish or French), a less commonly taught language (e.g., Korean or Mandarin), or an indigenous/heritage language (e.g., Ojibwe or Yup’ik)

Growth in Foreign Language Immersion in the US

  • FL immersion began in 1971 with first Spanish immersion program in Culver City, California
  • Branaman & Rhodes (1998) report that between 1987-1997 the percentage of elementary programs offering foreign language education through immersion grew from 2% to 8%
  • Curtain & Dahlberg (2004) report 278 foreign language immersion programs in 29 states

Distinguishing Characteristics of Two-way (Dual Language) Immersion Programs

Bilingual: Spanish (L1) and English (L2)


English-dominant child

Bilingual: Spanish (L2) and English (L1)

Dual immersion programs are sometimes called: two-way immersion (TWI), bilingual immersion, dual language immersion, two-way bilingual, Spanish immersion (or whatever the minority language of focus might be), or developmental bilingual education (DBE – a term used by the U.S. Dept. of Education).

  • Student population consists of majority language speakers and minority language speakers with dominance in their first language and home language support for this language (e.g., Spanish dominant students whose parents use primarily Spanish in the home and English dominant students from English-speaking homes)
  • A 1:1 ratio is ideally maintained for these two language groups, but a minimum of one-third of each language group (i.e., a 2:1 ratio) is essential
  • An academically challenging learning environment is provided to bring children from two different language groups together to learn from and with each other in an integrated setting
  • Instruction through the minority language is viewed as an enrichment experience for all, not as remedial or compensatory education for the language minority students in the program
  • The languages of instruction will involve both the majority and a minority language. The minority language may be a more commonly taught language (e.g., Spanish-English), a less commonly taught language (e.g., Korean-English), or an indigenous/heritage language (e.g., Navajo-English)

Growth of Dual Language Immersion Programs in the U.S.

  • First two-way immersion program in the U.S. began in 1963
  • Surge in number of two-way immersion programs across the U.S. is relatively recent – since mid 1980s.
  • According to the directory maintained by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington D.C., as of July 2003 there are 271 dual language immersion programs in 24 states (plus D.C.).
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