The power of early immersion

At first glance, the halls of Jardin Magico seem a lot like those of any building dedicated to young children.

Small winter boots sit in neat rows against the walls. Doors are littered with cutout construction paper animals. The carpet and walls are a rainbow-themed motif of red, blue, yellow and green.

But it doesn’t take long to see that there is something else going on here.

Crayoned worksheets hanging on the walls show students’ penmanship using words such as león, tortuga and perro. Songs about the days of the week — Lunes, Martes, Viernes — emanate from the classrooms.  And teachers greet their students and parents by saying, “Buenos dias.”

The infusion of Spanish isn’t indicative of a passing lesson plan, but rather a part of the everyday instruction at Jardin Magico, a daycare and preschool center that began a decade ago in the Longfellow neighborhood.

Here, infants as young as six-weeks-old receive regular exposure to Spanish. Teachers, most of whom are native Spanish speakers, say they spend about 90 percent of their days speaking to students in Spanish.

The idea is to capture the children’s attention while they are at their most impressionable developmental state and more easily able to absorb multiple languages simultaneously.

More than four decades of research has shown that immersion is an effective way to learn a second language; more recent studies have suggested that’s particularly true at an early age, when communication is being learned for the first time.

Young people in immersion environments have also been shown to do as well or better than non-immersion students on academic performance, educators say.

“[Children] are essentially wired to learn languages,” said Diane Tedick, an associate professor in second languages and cultures education at the University of Minnesota who specializes in immersion education and worked previously as a bilingual instructor.

Natalie Standridge-Lopez and her husband Xavier Lopez were hoping to tap into that potential when they opened Jardin Magico 10 years ago, following the birth of their first child. At the time, the couple said they couldn’t find any programs that offered the kind of language instruction they sought.

Today, they and the teachers who work with them say their dream of creating bilingual students has been realized hundreds of times over.

Students take quickly to the language and are routinely able to carry on conversations in Spanish by the time they leave for kindergarten, they say.

“As fast as they can learn English at home, they’re learning Spanish here,” said Katie Cook, the assistant director at Jardin Magico’s newest location, located just south of the 50th & France commercial district on the Minneapolis-Edina line.

Parents are increasingly seeking out such education, too.

Jardin Magico attracted just 14 students in its first year but has since grown to three locations with more than 400 families and a waiting list three times capacity. In addition to the Edina location, there are schools in the Kingfield and Longfellow neighborhoods.

Standrige-Lopez said the interest shows parents are becoming more aware of the academic benefits of a bilingual education, but that there has also been a broader turn toward multiculturalism.

“People are becoming more and more attuned to diversity and they’re starting to get that global perspective,” she said.

Jana Hilleren, the executive director of the Minneapolis Public School District’s multilingual department, said such interest is also fueling interest in immersion programs offered at the elementary and middle school levels.

“Parents know that their students are preparing for a global economy, and that puts the bar at bit higher place,” she said.

The district is opening a French language immersion elementary school, Pierre Bottineau in North Minneapolis, this fall and already has two Spanish language immersion elementary schools — Emerson, located near Loring Park, and Windom, in south Minneapolis.

Each feeds the Anwatin Middle School, where immersion education continues.

Elizabeth Dwight, the Spanish dual immersion coordinator at Anwatin, said there have been several success stories, such as a sixth-grade immersion student who recently won both the Spanish spelling bee and the English spelling bee. The student, from an English-speaking home, won the Spanish spelling bee after a long battle with a native Spanish-speaking eighth grader, she said.  

Officials say the immersion programs have been fueled not just by parents seeking immersion programs, but by a growing Latino population. Students who speak Spanish at home are included in the bilingual programs because, counter intuitively, research shows they can learn English more quickly that way.

At Jardin Magico, though, almost all of the students come from English-speaking homes, and are brought by parents who do not speak Spanish.

Anna Peterson is among them. Neither she or her husband speak another language, but the couple’s two children, who now attend Whittier Elementary, can communicate easily in Spanish.

“It’s been really empowering,” Peterson said. “About one-third of the school is Hispanic, so there’s a lot of incentive and opportunity for them to speak Spanish.”

Despite the growing interest, educators say there is still progress to be made. They point to other countries where it is common for people to speak multiple languages, and say that politics remains a difficult obstacle to overcome.

“We’re very alone in the world when you look at what other countries are doing,” said Tedick, the University of Minnesota professor.

For Jardin Magico, though, there is satisfaction in knowing they are playing a small role in spreading the benefits of learning several languages.

“We’re very excited to be a part of immersion education and how forward moving it has become in our area and our country,” Standridge-Lopez said.  

Reach Drew Kerr at [email protected]