First Spanish, Then Chinese: Expanding Elementary Language Learning Opportunities

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2008, Vol. 11, No. 3

By Tracy Nelson-Maurer, Board Member, Lakes International Language Academy, Forest Lake, MN

Founders of Lakes International Language Academy (LILA) in Forest Lake, Minnesota, intentionally chose a name that embraces teaching more than one foreign language and reflects a mission to prepare students for global citizenship. This public charter elementary school opened in 2004 with a Spanish immersion curriculum based on the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) Primary Years Programme (PYP). In LILA’s first year, the school welcomed 177 students in grades K-4. Fifth and sixth grades followed in the respective school years. Currently, the K-6 school serves 450 students and has a projected capacity enrollment of 600. Sustained enrollment growth combined with an expressed community interest in Chinese (proven when LILA offered a highly successful after-school for-fee Chinese program that generated a waiting list) positioned the school to begin its expansion into Mandarin Chinese as a third language (L3) in June 2007.

LILA Spanish immersion students sing about their animal sign in their third language, Mandarin Chinese.
LILA Spanish immersion students sing about their animal sign in their third language, Mandarin Chinese.

Researching a Third Language

The choice of Mandarin Chinese was based on research and national and local need for the language’s instruction. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Chinese is the third most commonly spoken language in the United States after English and Spanish. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) has identified a need for schools to produce competent foreign language speakers for domestic reasons, such as emergency response, health care services, educational settings, etc., and also for reasons related to heightened national security and international diplomacy. In 2007, the USDE recognized LILA’s potential for educating students in Spanish and Chinese, a critical-need language, by awarding the school with the largest-ever Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grant—more than $800,000 dispersed over three years.

In addition to meeting a national critical-language need, LILA’s program fills a need on the local level. No local community education resources exist for Chinese instruction near Forest Lake. Only one newly opened Chinese immersion school operates in the entire metropolitan area, Yinghua Academy elementary charter school in St. Paul.1

Minnesota’s Governor Tim Pawlenty has worked with the Minnesota Department of Education, which is LILA’s charter sponsor, to develop initiatives focused on supporting Chinese language instruction in Minnesota’s schools. The Minnesota Department of Education is working with its peers in Chinese schools to develop language instruction resources, develop exchanges, and learn about Chinese language pedagogy. In addition, in 2006, LILA Coordinadora de estudios infantiles Shannon Peterson joined a network of educators, Mandarin Chinese speakers, business owners, and other interested partners to develop recommendations for a Mandarin Chinese curriculum. Results from the project were presented to the Minnesota legislature in February 2007.

Bilingual Students take on L3

In preparation for its L3 expansion, LILA administration and staff reviewed the Minnesota report and other research results, including several empirical studies showing that prior second language experience has a positive effect on L3 acquisition in bilingual contexts (e.g., Cenoz & Valencia, 1994; Sanz, 2000; Swain, Lapkin, Rowen, & Hart, 1990). LILA leaders also found studies showing “level of bilingualism” as a variable closely related to level of proficiency in a third language (Cenoz, 2001; Lasagabaster, 2000; Muñoz, 2000; Sagasta, 2003). However, existing research on the effects of third language learning after acquiring second language skills is admittedly sparse and we continue to monitor the work of language education experts at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) and individuals abroad such as Ulrike Jessner at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.2

Using available data, LILA’s board of directors and its staff concluded in 2006 that embracing a third language such as Mandarin Chinese would strengthen the school’s mission to produce global citizens, reinforce its commitment to educational innovation, and complement its goal of offering a rigorous academic curriculum. As part of its mission to value its teachers and to become an employer of choice, LILA emphasizes professional skill development opportunities in cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Education and CARLA. In December 2007, LILA announced that Yuping Liu had accepted the school’s first Chinese teaching position. By the second trimester of 2007-08, Ms. Liu had introduced Mandarin Chinese as a specialist subject for all grades, K-6. She also will implement a Chinese enrichment program for students from grades 1-6 who have been identified as needing additional learning challenges.

As part of its mission, LILA holds its students to a high standard in traditional elementary subjects and a high level of proficiency in both spoken and written Spanish. This will extend to Mandarin Chinese. LILA already administers Student Oral Proficiency Assessment (SOPA) testing at the spring trimester for grades K, 2 and 5 in Spanish and will introduce Mandarin Chinese testing in spring 2010 for grade 2 students participating in the sequential Mandarin Chinese program (assuming kindergarten entrance to the program). LILA has used FLAP funds to train additional SOPA assessors and support SOPA results analysis. FLAP funds have also been slated for acquiring teaching materials and resources in Chinese or for Chinese cultural study, including library books and computer programs.
LILA expects that the addition of Mandarin Chinese to its successful Spanish immersion program will fortify its mission and help build multicultural appreciation, just when Minnesota—and the United States—need it most.

1.Since LILA did its research on opportunities for learning Chinese at the elementary level in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, four new immersion schools have opened up with Mandarin as the language of instruction.
2.Ulrike Jessner is among the leading researchers studying multilingualism, specifically third-language acquisition.

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