The Social & Cognitive Challenges
of Middle School Japanese Immersion

The ACIE Newsletter, February 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2

By Carl Falsgraf, Director, Japanese Language Project,
Oregon State System of Higher Education, Eugene, Oregon

"To teach is to learn." --Japanese proverb

I was reminded of the wisdom of this proverb recently when I was asked to speak to a group of parents from the Japanese Magnet Program in Portland, Oregon. The parents wanted to hear what the research said about language acquisition in Japanese immersion programs. I think I did a credible job of presenting this to the parents but, as the proverb suggests, ended up learning more than anyone else in the room.

I focused my presentation on the findings we are pretty confident about: Immersion children perform as well as or better than students in non-immersion schools in all curricular areas while learning a second language and culture; young children's cognitive make-up argues for starting early; second-language learning at a young age offers a number of cognitive and social advantages.

Of course, I also had to deliver the "bad news" that immersion alone usually doesn't lead to "native-like" production skills due to the limitations of classroom input and output.

I also mentioned that, cognitively speaking, middle school students are ideal language learners. They still have some of the cognitive advantages of children, while also having more complex learning strategies. This is where my learning really started.

Cognitive data notwithstanding, parents, teachers, and researchers all agree that middle school is the most challenging time for immersion students. Kids often lose interest in learning the language. Some drop out the program, others just tune out. In a sense, it doesn't matter how much we know about language acquisition, how good our curriculum is, or how inspired our teaching may be, if willful adolescents are dead-set against learning.

I set out to learn more about this perplexing phenomenon. Middle school Japanese immersion teachers explained to me the curricular and pedagogic contradictions that challenge them. By middle school, students' mastery of complex subject matter and higher thinking processes has outstripped their Japanese abilities. This also appears to be true for cognate languages such as French and Spanish, but is exacerbated by the complexity of the Japanese orthographic system. The teacher then faces the dilemma of either abandoning the immersion ideal of "teaching through the language" or leaving students with gaps in their subject matter knowledge.

It also became clear, much to my dismay, that acquiring Japanese is a relatively minor concern to parents, teachers, and students alike. The parents want their kids to do well in all areas and to stop complaining about how much they hate school. The teachers want to make sure that their kids meet the state standards for math, language arts, and so forth. Their administrators will never know if the students' Japanese is lagging, but they will know immediately if scores on the state math assessment fall. And the students themselves can see no reason to learn Japanese.

And this is really at the heart of the middle school dilemma. Learning Japanese is no longer cool. Showing off their ability to write exotic characters and sing songs, a great motivator for third graders, marks a seventh grader as a dweeb. Adolescents want so badly to fit in, and their participation in this special program marks them as different. And since their parents decided to enroll them in this program, their continued participation is a mark of their (former) dependence and submission to parental authority.

As I struggled to understand these complex and interrelated issues, and to offer some help and advice to concerned parents and teachers, I came to some humbling realizations:

  • What we know about the cognitive processes of language acquisition and language pedagogy is of limited value in addressing the problems of middle school immersion.
  • Social development is primary for adolescents. It takes precedence over intellectual development.
  • Regardless of curriculum, technique, or method, middle school students will resist learning a language if it is seen as a social handicap.

Though humbled, I still feel that those of us who do language acquisition research can contribute to efforts to improve middle school immersion. But to do so, we must go beyond measurements of linguistic and cognitive variables to include social and personal context, and then show how these interact with language learning. In doing so, we will surely have to rely on the cooperation and expertise of educators who have spent their professional lives working with adolescents, and of social psychologists who have a research tradition that has much to teach us about perplexing problems we face.

The pedagogic solutions to these thorny problems must be informed by cognitive, social, and linguistic understanding. As an applied linguist, I hope that our field can bring some of this information to the table. But in actuality, parents, teachers and students best understand the interpersonal and social nature of middle schools. Working together, I hope that we can address some of the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be a bilingual teenager?
  • Does bilingualism necessarily have to be a negative social attribute in North American society?
  • Despite apparent disengagement from language learning, do middle school students continue to acquire underlying communicative competence even if that competence is unexpressed in the middle school years?
  • Do students "snap out of it" and regain enthusiasm for language learning in high school?
  • Is the immersion model itself responsible for some of the problems experienced at middle school? If so, what modifications do we need to make to that model to ameliorate these problems?


I would like to thank Fred Lorish, Michael Bacon, Cliff Walker, Ellen Jones-Walker, and Elaine Tarone for their comments and guidance. The views expressed and errors committed are, of course, mine alone. --CF

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