“So say something to me in Spanish.”
That’s what most people ask Violet when they find out she has finished a year in a dual-language Spanish immersion program. After that, my generally loud outgoing daughter shrinks back behind me and whispers, “I can’t.”
At this point I get a confused or pitying look from the person asking. But the truth is, becoming bilingual doesn’t happen in just one year. It takes 2-3 years of immersion to be conversationally fluent and 5-7 to be academically fluent. (This is a big part of the reason that traditional bilingual programs, which end after 2-3 years, have such a low success rate). The kids are not supposed to be able to speak so soon in the process. Since learning a second language follows the same trajectory as learning the first, expecting these students to converse already is like expecting a 1 year old to talk like a 3 year old. Sure, the monolingual kids can sing a few songs and repeat a couple phrases, just like a baby can mumble through the ABCs without really knowing what each letter is. But the DL kindergartners quickly learn to understand their teachers, just like a toddler can understand the adults around him. And, more importantly, Violet can explain to us what she has learned. The life-cycle of a ladybug? The behavior of shadows? How to classify items as alive or not living? She only learned about these things in Spanish, but happily explained them all to us in English. (She can also recite the Texas pledge in Spanish and English. Very important, apparently.)
So how was the first year? That’s the big question. Well, the answer is that it was a big year. A lot changes for the girl. She has matured and grown a lot. She can read, has lots of friends, and can (mostly) follow rules. The fact that half of this experience was in Spanish was really beside the point. For the kids, getting used to school in general was , by far, the biggest hurdle. Doing it all in two languages seemed normal to them. They played, sang songs, communicated and did all the things that kindergartners do.
I, on the other hand, did not learn as much Spanish as I had hoped. More on that later.