GREAT FALLS, Va. – “Does anyone know the color of a dandelion?” teacher Mamiya Sahara Worland asked her first-grade class at Great Falls Elementary School in northern Virginia.
“Is it a triangle?” student Makenzie Parent asked.
“No, it’s not.”
Student Mike Anderson then said, “I think it’s yellow.”
The exchange — all carried out in Japanese — is a typical scene in one of Worland’s math classes.
Apart from the language, the mathematics curriculum being taught does not differ from that in elementary schools elsewhere in the United States.
Native English speakers born to ordinary American families, 24 of Worland’s 26 students encountered the Japanese language for the first time in September.
But with half their school hours exposing them to Japanese, the students have become proficient enough to understand most of what their Japanese teacher says.
“First graders are like blotting paper,” the teacher said. “Their power of absorbing a new language is enormous.”
Fairfax County, where the school is located, introduced an immersion program for foreign language study in eight elementary schools in September 1989. Great Falls Elementary School was selected to participate in the program.
This year, 126 of Great Falls’ 780 students, from first to sixth grade, enrolled in the Japanese program.
Students spend half their day — for mathematics, science and health — in Japanese and the remainder — for English and social studies — in English.
Fairfax County officials say math, science and health were chosen for the immersion program because these subjects often use hand gestures, which help the second-language acquisition process.
Under the immersion program, the foreign language is not taught as a subject but becomes the language of instruction for part of the curriculum, they said.
“Learning how to write is the most difficult part,” said Caroline Stinger, 9, a fourth-grader in the immersion program. “But class is fun.”
Students acquire the foreign language subconsciously through interesting activities conducted in Japanese as they learn the concepts included in the curriculum, county officials say.
At Great Falls, five Japanese have been hired to take part in the immersion program.
Each immersion student has an English-speaking teacher and a Japanese-language teacher who team together to ensure students reach levels comparable with those they would have reached if they had been schooled only in English.
Back in the early 1990s, many parents were concerned that immersion students would lag behind in comprehension of the three particular subjects conducted in Japanese, recalled Worland, who has been at Great Falls since 1991.
“At the beginning, I was very worried about whether my students could achieve targeted levels,” she said. “I was gripped by the thought that the program would end if it did not produce the desired results.”
But research conducted by George Mason University shows there are no differences between immersion and regular students in overall academic achievements.
Results of the state-sponsored standards of learning test have also proved immersion students face no disadvantage.
“That relieved me a lot — and boosted my confidence,” Worland said.
Worland, who is in charge of first- and third-grade classes along with assistant teacher Sumi Gallas, said they conduct classes in a manner that introduces Japanese culture to the students.
“In January, we talk about the New Year’s holidays in Japan. In February, we explain the ‘setsubun’ devil-banishing ceremony. In March, we celebrate the ‘ohinasama’ girls’ festival. And in April, we sing the traditional cherry blossom song ‘Sakura Sakura,’ ” she said.
“Culture and language are inseparable.”
Lily Goodson, 9, a fourth-grade immersion student, said: “My teacher is very nice. She makes learning Japanese a lot more fun.
“I’d love to continue Japanese because I hope to go to Japan in the future.”
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