A Love for Language
Discover the Wonders of Foreign-Language Immersion at ISC

By Dionna L. Mann

Originally appeared in October 2011

The International School of Charlottesville (ISC) may at first appear to be like many preschools of Charlottesville: little ones learning to identify the sight and sound of letters; knee-highers discovering numbers, colors, time and measurement. A colorful classroom full of songs that make boys and girls wiggle, games that make them shout, and delicious, nutritious snacks that make their lips smack. But upon closer examination, the International School is unlike any other in town.

Notice the walls? The text on all the learning posters is in French or Spanish. And the books? They look familiar  that one there is definitely The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, but the text is most certainly not English. And, if you close your eyes, the chatter springing forth from dozens of little ones makes you wonder if youre really in Charlottesville!

Opened as La Petite École (The Little Nursery School) in 1998 by Sibylle Rotach-Hunt and Maite Brandt-Pearce, the ISC is a foreign-language immersion preschool that enrolls children as young as 2. Tracy Huang, head of school, shares what makes the ISC different from other preschools. We have an excellent preschool program that addresses the developmental needs of our students while developing cultural awareness in a language immersion setting. We provide the best experience in language immersion and preschool education for our students. Huang adds, Diversity and openness to other cultures are not abstract concepts we hope to achieve, but ideals lived by and experience by our students and teachers every day.

But wouldnt it confuse a child who speaks only English at home to attend a preschool where his or her teacher only spoke French or Spanish? Research seems to say the opposite. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, numerous studies indicate that school children benefit by foreign-language immersion, scoring higher than their peers on competency tests in the areas of math, science, social studies and reading.

Huang shares her years of observation of and research in the foreign-language immersion community: Learning a second language has many benefits, and preschoolers have a unique advantage because they learn and absorb information quickly at this stage. Learning a second language earlier also gives the child an edge in acquiring native-like proficiency, especially in the areas of pronunciation and accent. In addition, between the ages of 3 and 6, children gain greater facility in their native language. Huang also notes that introducing a second language in the preschool years enables children to make and strengthen connections between their first and second languages. She adds, It also helps develop metalingusitic awareness, a capacity to discriminate between the structures and sounds of the language, an essential skill in learning how to read and write. Research shows that children who are bilingual or speak a second language develop this awareness earlier than monolinguals do.

Kristofor and Jennifer Wiley, parents to Eleanor Wiley, age 3, found that the offering of foreign-language immersion at ISC was right in tune with their desires to bring up Eleanor as an effective global citizen and to gain an ability to interact with respect to persons of all cultures. Kristofor says, We spent time in the Peace Corps, and that convinced us that knowledge of language is essential to understanding of culture, adding that respect relies on understanding.

Eleanor is now in her third year at ISC, entering as a toddler in the language-introduction preschool class, and now in her second year in the French immersion preschool. She doesnt like to speak French with us at home, says Kristofor, but if we are sly, we can catch her singing French tunes in her bedroom while playing by herself. She has recently begun to enjoy teaching us French vocabulary. Why has the Wiley family chosen the French language for Eleanors formative years? Kristofor, a gifted-education doctoral student at UVA, gives their reasons, saying, The specific language is not as important to us as is the development of the pertinent regions of her brain. Americans who know one language will be a significant minority when she is grown, and we want to pave her way into language learning.

Overall, Eleanors parents have found the folks at ISC to be imminently professional, kind but firm with the children, and [those that include] a thoughtful curriculum which blends creativity and rigor. To them, the ISC is a little gem, one they are glad they found in Charlottesvilles independent school spectrum.

Suzanne Saraya, a mom fluent in multiple languages, feels language immersion is a priority for her family. So she and her husband, Chris, readily enrolled their children, Natacha (6) and Maya (3), in the ISC. Natacha graduated this past spring with four years of language immersion to take away with her to elementary school. Positive changes in their eldest are evident as a result. Suzanne says, Natacha was a very shy child and, within a few months at the ISC, she bloomed! She is now very independent in addition to being fluent in French. It is now Mayas turn to begin her second year at the school. Natacha and Mayas parents hope that their girls will come away from the ISC with brain development in areas that would have otherwise been left untouched until later years, with flexibility to adapt to change, and with an openness toward new cultures and ideas.

Michael and Elizabeth Branns daughter, Isabelle (4), has also been learning her preschool skills in French at the ISC. We were looking for a school that offered a language-immersion option as well as a comfortable and nurturing environment, says Elizabeth. When we first dropped Isabelle off at ISC, she was quiet and shy. (I have a great picture of her comforting herself reading in a bean bag.) Over the course of the [first] year, you could just see the changes in her. She became more open to sharing and talking with others and her comfort level increased. By mid-way through the year, she had made such advances that others in the ISC community remarked on her growth.

For instance, during Isabelles first year at the ISC, she was a bit intimidated by the annual school show. She spent the entire performance in the arms of her aftercare teacher. However, this past school year, Isabelle not only practiced her parts at home, she filled the house with dancing and singing in French. Needless to say, her performance was spent on stage this time. Isabelles confidence is such that now, when mom attempts to speak to her in French at home, she will correct her mothers pronunciation. (Mom doesnt mind the correction one bit. She thinks its great!)

I hope that learning another language will allow my daughter to go through doors that would not have necessarily opened otherwise, says Elizabeth, [and] allow her to approach problems in different ways and will make language acquisition easier. The Branns also hope that Isabelle will grow up with an appreciation for other cultures in an ever growing world.

A key ingredient, of course, to any quality education is an amazing teacher. At the ISC, the six head teachers and their assistants do not disappoint. The teachers have an average of over a decade of experience teaching young children both in the U.S. and in their home countries, and an average of five years at the ISC.

For example, take one French immersion instructor, formerly a Montessori schoolteacher in Paris. Shes been imbuing her classroom with learning par excellence for over 10 years.

Ch, ch, ch, a preschool teacher says. Thats the French way of quieting down a classroom full of jubilant 3- and 4-year-olds. Merci, she says, as little ones turn their attention to her. Then begins a Bonjour song, sung with wiggling of hands, slapping of laps, and sticking out of tongues  all upon French command.

Next, its a review of animal sounds.

Quest-ce qui fait, gobble, gobble, gobble? Alec answers that a turkey says, gobble, and he knows the French word for turkey, saying it with an accent that sounds like that of a native speaker. To reinforce their ability to identify colors, the preschool teacher pulls out a basket full of vegetables. An ear of corn is displayed, and each child is reminded of the colors vert and jaune. Tickles come, too, as they discover how soft the corns cheveux (hair) is when it is brushed against a cheek. The morning-circle winds down with a lively reading of a beautifully illustrated childrens book about vegetables  written in French, of course.

A preschool morning would not be complete without artistic expression and its no different here. Pastels are brought forth, and little hands begin to draw their favorite vegetables in bright purple, yellow, green and red. When the students ask questions in English, a ready French reply is heard, and no one misses a beat.

Alicia Anderson, the ISCs director of admissions, explains, All of the skills you might expect in a traditional preschool or pre-kindergarten program, youll get here, except the courses are taught in French or Spanish. Like a Montessori school, many of the themes for the units at ISC are child-driven, says Anderson. For instance, one year a little boy was fascinated with dinosaurs, so a dinosaur theme was chosen for the preschoolers to study. Teachers at ISC also bring their own culture into the ISC classrooms. Anderson says, This is a wonderful way to expose kids to new ideas while they are still shaping their worldview.

For example, Alejandra Newell, Spanish pre-kindergarten lead instructor, is upstairs pouring maté  a traditional drink from Argentina, the country from which she hails  as part of her classrooms snack. While the children sip the tea-like refreshment, Newell puts into the VCR a recording of the preschoolers recent live performance of El Gaucho, a folklore dance of Argentina. The children watch themselves dance about in cowboy and cowgirl attire. ¡Mira! The children say excitedly, as they pick themselves out of the circle of performers. How proud they are to see themselves, boys in cowboy boots with hands behind their backs dancing toward girls twirling aprons and handkerchiefs. Their teacher is proud, too.

Sharing her culture with little ones brings Newell joy. I love my country. I love the Spanish language, and what I like most about the culture is the warmness of hugs. Newells students receive an ample supply of their teachers hugs. How does she feel about being part of the ISC language-immersion community? Its a unique experience for me  a great connection with my native language every day, being able to enjoy and listen to and see how the children learn a second language. As a language-immersion teacher as well as a mother of a 5-year-old son who is bilingual, Newell recommends that parents expose their young ones to a new language. Practice as soon as possible, she says, and the best time is in the early years.

Down the hall, head teacher Ali Sullivan, born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, loves teaching about her culture as well. Sullivan says, The richness of the language with the many varieties of ways to speak Spanish between the different areas and countries, the way that each area/country has its own style of music, literature, and style of life. Our culture is open, affectionate and passionate. Her passion shows in her classroom.

Today, while Sullivan enthusiastically engages her small class in singing a Spanish version of Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes and The Hokey Pokey, the smell of traditional cornbread fills the air. (That will be a snack for later.)

I love teaching the little kids, Sullivan says. To see them engaged and trying to learn the language is the best. It doesnt feel like work. I know that sounds a little clichéd, but the way I run my class and the way the kids respond, its like a big play date. Playing while learning, Sullivan believes, is the best way to instill language. She says, Since a childs world is play, and they learn by playing, it helps them learn the language in the easiest form. As they are doing what comes naturally to them, play, they not only learn the language, but learn to love the learning.

Graduates of the ISC move on to both private and public schools; some continuing the languages theyve started, while others enjoy starting a new one. (And even others do both!) One area family recently spent some time in France where their boys, graduates of ISC, attended a local, native school. The ISC offers parents a chance to enroll their children in not just a preschool, but an opportunity to have, what Anderson calls a big-world exposure. She adds, Language immersion is so important, so different, one piece in a huge philosophy behind a childs education.

Sullivan agrees, saying: I see that it opens their eyes to the bigger world, in introduction to other cultures, adding, that language immersion teaches children both an appreciation and a tolerance for people that may be different from them. It excites them to learn a new way of speaking, of music, of art, of being.

Dionna is a freelance writer who loves the symphony of languages, the beauty of culture and the joy of diversity.

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