Bilingual Learning

The science, options, and dilemma of dual language education.

89.3 KPCC

1

The Science

Language learning and the developing mind.

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Like most kindergarteners, Ruby Stokes is learning to read and write.

She just happens to be doing it in two languages.

Ruby is among a growing number of Los Angeles kids whose parents are choosing to place them in immersion schools not to learn English, but to learn a foreign language—sometimes one that isn’t spoken at home.

In her case, it’s the Spanish immersion program at Micheltorena, which her mother Amy describes as “Silverlake hipster school.”

They are breaking with the long-held fear that learning two languages at once would retard a child’s English vocabulary, instead gravitating to immersion schools as a way to bolster their children’s education. There is such an interest by parents that the number of bilingual schools in California has increased five-fold since 1994.

Brain researchers and linguists said these parents are onto something. Science shows that children who learn in more than one language actually improve their brain function.

Since the 1960s, experts have been trying to figure out how babies and toddlers pick up language. With electrode caps and MRIs, they can now physically see what happens inside children’s brains when they are exposed to words.

“Each time the child hears a word, we take a snapshot of the brain activity over the next two seconds after hearing the word,” explained Barbara Conboy, a Linguistics professor at Redlands University who’s been studying multiple language acquisition for years.

Conboy is looking for differences in activity between when a child hears a “known” word—one he or she would immediately recognize, such as dog, or cat—and unknown words.

What she and others have found is that by a certain age, a child is able to tell whether a word he or she has never heard before is a word in his or her native language.

A 3-year-old English speaker probably does not know the word “fiber,” but Conboy said brain snapshots reveal that the child is able to figure out that it is an English word.

And—what’s most relevant to parents of children exposed to multiple languages—is children can make that distinction even if they speak more than one language. A 3-year-old who also speaks Spanish would know that “fiber” is English and not Spanish based solely on the pattern or sound structure of the word, Conboy said.

She said that’s because the infant brain is meant to discover patterns in the sounds it hears.

Children can begin to make language distinctions in unknown words from the time they are four months old, said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor at Temple University and Director of its Infant Language Laboratory.

“Babies are brilliant,” she said. “In the first year of life, babies discriminate the sounds from all of the world’s languages and they become specialists in finding the words and sounds in their own native tongue.”

Spoken words stimulate the infant brain to try to understand what it’s hearing. That causes lots of neurons to fire to try to fit the word into a language.

As a result, researchers said, bilingual children may actually get smarter. Conboy said they get a boost in the part of the brain that controls “executive function”—working memory, focus and mental flexibility.

MRIs and electrode cap activity in bilingual infants and toddlers shows more activity in this area of the brain in children who speak multiple languages, according to Loyola Marymount University professor Magaly Lavadenz.

She says that mental activity that works a child’s executive functions, such as language-learning, helps the child be more focused.

“The brain is like a muscle,” she said, “like any muscle, the more you use your muscle, the stronger it is.”

Jan Corea, who runs the California Association of Bilingual Education, said social science research from the last decade is proving that if a child can learn two languages they will “do much better in academic achievement tests” over the life of their education.

Researchers looking at brain activity have also figured out why a child can learn multiple languages much more easily than adults.

Lavadenz said that as infants get older and are only exposed to certain languages, “we delete those other language sound systems.”

The brain begins to focus more exclusively on what it is hearing, losing the ability to understand different languages. Conboy said this process is called “neural commitment.”

The brain is committing itself to the languages it is hearing. So the younger a child is, the more the brain will be open to trying to process new sounds and languages.

The younger brain is simply working on it more than an older child or adult as the child has still not become completely entrenched in a language.

But as children hear only one language, they “delete” other language systems from their brain, according to Professor Lavadenz.

That’s why kids who are older when they are immersed in a language they’ve never heard before can struggle. It can require more motivation from the child to stick with it.

2

The Options

Where and how to find bilingual schools in LA County.

Around Southern California, a child can spend half or more of his or her school day learning in Spanish, Korean, French, German, Armenian, Japanese, Italian—and even the indigenous language, Nahuatl.

Los Angeles County leads the state in the number of schools that offer bilingual education starting in kindergarten—in part, advocates and others said, because of its multicultural population. Bilingual schools have quietly built a fan-base, starting with the linguists and social scientists who have studied their progress over the last few decades, and many English-speaking parents who want their child to master a second language early in life.

After Tracy Pumilia enrolled her son in a Spanish immersion Kindergarten class, he would come home daily and try to explain to her that she had made a grave mistake. He’d say: “Mom, you don’t understand, I’m going into this classroom, but I’m supposed to be over there because that is where the English speaking kids are.”

Pumilia said he was genuinely confused about why he wasn’t with the English speaking teacher, given that was all he had ever spoken. Today, he’s a freshman in high school and is fluent in Spanish and English and Pumilia is the principal of an immersion school.

The curriculum in these classrooms is the same as any other—math, science, social studies—the children are simply learning it all in another language.

There are two popular models of instruction: 90-10 and 50-50.

In 90-10, the students start kindergarten with 90 percent of the day being taught in the “target language”—the language that is not English—and 10 percent of the day in English. In first grade that percentage changes to 80-20; to 70-30 in second grade. By 5th grade the child is studying half the day in English and half the day in the target language.

In the 50-50 model, the instruction is split evenly between English and the target language from kindergarten.

No matter what the model, teachers stick to speaking only one language to students at the kindergarten or first grade level so the child will not slip into English.

“About the middle of first grade a child will realize that a person can speak two languages,” said Vicki Atikian Avilia, Principal at the Franklin Magnet School in Glendale. Until then, it’s crucial that students hear and try to speak only the target language.

Parents are warned to expect lower test results in the child’s first years. That’s because standardized tests are given in English starting in the second-grade, when children in 90-10 programs would have had very little English language instruction. The low second grade test score can be alarming for parents and lower the school API score but experts said that’s not a fair assessment of how well the kids are doing academically.

They become literate in the target language, but are not tested on that knowledge. Like any program, some children won’t take to it at all. But by 4th and 5th grade, bilingual students are generally doing equal to or better than their English-only peers, experts said.

“They are made to absorb as many languages as possible,” said Ana Flores, author of the book Bilingual is Better. Her own daughter attends Franklin Magnet school in Glendale and at the first grade level is getting 80 percent of her day in Spanish at school—as well as 100 percent of her home time. For her, learning only one language is “like being born with two arms and only teaching you how to use one.”

For this series, KPCC visited eight centers—from a day care center, to public and private elementary schools where children as young as two are being taught in a foreign language. Here are profiles of each of them.

Academia Semillas del Pueblo

Marcos Aguilar is a principal on a mission. As a student in the 1980s, he waged battles to bring Chicano studies to UCLA. Later, as a public school teacher, he witnessed veteran teachers use the same curriculum year after year, yet blame students for failing to learn.

His two passions came together in 2001, when he and his wife, also a teacher and Chicana activist, founded an indigenous language charter school.

Aguilar said his goal is to "educate the community's children," to make sure they love learning and—just as importantly—to allow them to daydream.

He chose Nahuatl, the most common indigenous language on the North American continent, as one of the three languages of instruction across the Semillas Community schools, which go from k-12 and also offer an international Baccalaureate program. Between two and three million people speak Nahuatl. Entire villages in the Mexican highlands speak only Nahuatl, he said. His schools teach not only the language, but also indigenous history.

"We're not visitors here, and it's important for our children to grow, knowing what our ancestors named the places around us many many years ago," he said. The school is open to all children, but has a predominantly indigenous student body.

Aguilar said the school graduated 100 percent of its first class last year. Of those, 80 percent went on to college.

East Rio Vista YMCA

"Teacher, yo no veo el elefante" pipes up a little girl with pigtails from the back of the classroom.

"That's because there are no elephants in the room" the teacher coos as she turns the page in the book she is reading to the audience of 3-year-olds seated on a mat in front of her. The teacher smiles to herself as she continues reading the story about families.

"Children have such great imaginations at this age" said Lorena Castro, director of the East Rio Vista YMCA preschool attended by Latino children for free. The school is funded by the non-profit Los Angeles Universal Preschool. "It's our job to encourage that, whether it's in Spanish or English,” says Lorena Castro.

The school is one big room, divided into four classrooms. The children who are finger painting can't be seen by the group that is having free-play, and the group reading about families seems to be in its own little world. The teachers slide seamlessly between English and Spanish. The children do the same.

It's a model that optimizes the home language with the language of society, says Patricia Renteria, Senior Regional Director of the YMCA in Los Angeles. Three- and four-year-olds are expanding their vocabularies in two languages through lessons and conversations on subjects like health, science and nature.

Castro's classrooms break the stereotype that poor children are stuck with poor literacy and behavioral issues. Kids here learn everything their wealthier peers do and in two languages.

El Marino Spanish Immersion Public School

Before it was hip to be bilingual, Tracy Pumilia enrolled her son in a Spanish immersion Kindergarten class. He would come home daily and try to explain to her that she had made a grave mistake. He'd say: "Mom, you don't understand, I'm going into this classroom, but I'm supposed to be over there because that is where the English speaking kids are."

Pumilia said he was genuinely confused about why he wasn't with the English speaking teacher, given that was all he had ever spoken. Today, he's a freshman in high school and is fluent in Spanish and English. His mom is the principal of El Marino, a language immersion public school in Culver City.

The school, which offers both Japanese and Spanish, received an API of 931 in 2011. That school achievement score is well above the Department of Education's target goal of 800, and close to the perfect score of 1000. Children start off receiving only 10 percent of their instruction in English in kindergarten and add 10 percent a year until 5th grade, when they spend half the day in English and half in the target language.

Anne Burke's second-grader is in the Spanish program. Burke describes herself as "zero Latino" but wants her children to be fluent in English and Spanish. She said she feels some resentment against her own mother, who is from Thailand but never taught Burke her native language.

Burke's son tested in to Kindergarten at El Marino as a native Spanish speaker because of her and her husband's dedication to immerse their children in Spanish from their toddler years.

Pumilia said the school has struggled over the years to attract Latino families. It can be a hard sell when parents have experienced discrimination for their lack of English, she said. The recruitment drive for next school year is already underway.

Bell Tower Trilingual School

Adriana Spik was a dentist in Argentina before moving her family to Los Angeles in 1994. Spik's family had to learn English—and how to fit in at school and work—all while trying to hold on to cultural traditions.

Spik's son was mocked for bringing empanadas to school for lunch, and worse, he was threatened with a knife by a student who made fun of his accent. The scary knife incident was a turning point: the dentist became a principal, founding the trilingual Belltower school in Alhambra, which takes children as young as two into its Pre-K class and continues to fifth grade.

"I founded the school because I wanted to teach the kids to be tolerant to difference," she said.

In a nondescript building on a busy thoroughfare, students in all grades are taught for half the day in Spanish, half the day in English, and learn Mandarin for 30–60 minutes once a day.

Because it's a small, private school, she has been able to implement many strategies that she believes creates a well-rounded child.

For one, Spik's years of caring for people's teeth makes her zealous about the quality of food children eat.

"We rarely do sugar," Spik said. Her own mother is Belltower's head chef, who ensures that students get a home-cooked and healthy school lunch. It also allows students to take weekly cooking classes and regularly help Mama Spik prepare cultural dishes, from spicy Mexican and Indian food, to Italian pasta and Chinese noodles. It's all part of the overall goal of demystifying difference and fostering tolerance, she said.

Belltower school also focuses on the performing arts. Students take ballet, tap and jazz classes and put on regular stage performances. Eager parents line up at dawn to get show tickets.

Given Belltower's demographics—half Latino, half Asian, with a few Black, biracial and 'other' children—the performances represent a slice of Southern California that you might not find anywhere else: tapping Mariachis intertwined with jazzy Dragon dancers, a whiff of ethnicized Disney classics and a dollop of rock and roll meets Michael Jackson to top it off.

Ceci’s Home Day Care

Eight impeccably behaved toddlers sit in a line as lunch is served. Except in Ceci's kitchen, it's not lunch the children are awaiting, it's "taco time." Cecilia Peñaloza's home daycare is more than Spanish language childcare for the zero to five set, it's an understated Mexican cultural immersion that is pioneering a new kind of bilingual education.

At Taco Time, the toddlers eat beans and rice, or sopita, or pollo, and there are always plenty of tortillas and vasos de leche to go around. For Ceci, raising children to be bilingual includes a strong focus on the culture from where the language comes. Given her Mexican roots, at Ceci's home daycare the children sing "mañanitas" instead of happy birthday, they celebrate the Día de los Muertos around Halloween, and they help make tamales at Christmas time.

Right before lunch, after morning songtime and free play, Ceci often engages the kids in physical activity. On the driveway along the side of her house that Ceci has converted to a play area, she places hoops in a line on the ground. The kids jump from hoop to hoop and count them off as they land. It's a simple game, but the excitement and anticipation of jumping and counting is infectious. The challenge is to stay inside the hoop on landing, not an easy task for a two year old. "Uno." Jump. "Dos." Jump. "Tres." Jump. Shrieks and giggles accompany every jumper.

Ceci wants the children to feel like they are at home, rather than a corporatized preschool center.

"I treat them like they're my own kids, and we do things as if they were in their own homes."

Currently Mexican-American, white, Japanese, Indian, and African-American children attend Ceci's. The cultural immersion approach is the draw, she said. "It's so much more than just learning Spanish."

Long Beach New City School

At New City School in downtown Long Beach, students learn about sustainable food by harvesting an organic community garden. They create eco-awareness art projects, like the giant plastic bottle monument they built one year to draw attention to plastic waste. The school uses the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King day to talk about ongoing racial and ethnic inequality in the community.

The school has a social justice mission. One key part of it: it's a dual language immersion school.

Assistant Principal Claudia Sachs said the school's unusual language-as-empowerment ethos and instruction model have been influenced by a range of theorists, including: Texan brothers Dr's Gomez and Gomez, creators of a Dual Language education model; linguist Stephen Krashen; and education theorist Tracy Terrell.

With a fairly even split of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers, the school has a "language of the day" which alternates between Spanish and English. Everyone, including teachers, students and parents, must speak only that language in the hallways and in any conversation outside the classroom. The daily "language of instruction," which may not be the same, guides what is spoken in class. Sachs says the split ensures that native speakers of both languages are being serviced equally.

The school runs both Spanish and English classes for parents so they can participate more fully. Shirley Huling, who is an active parent-volunteer at the school, said she is committed to learning Spanish and does her best to communicate with students and teachers in the language of the day.

Huling's husband is from Colombia, and so a Spanish immersion education was a natural choice for their son Federico. Yet what Huling loves most is the school's social justice mission. She learned about the school from a local newspaper article about the plastic bottle project a few years ago and knew immediately she wanted her son to attend this school. She likens the students at New City school to a seedling growing in a community garden.

"If you nurture it properly and give it the right water and nutrients and sun, it becomes what we call communidad," she said. "And that's what New City School is all about."

Los Angeles Primary Leadership Academy

On the door of each kindergarten classroom at LA Leadership Academy there's a note to parents: teachers only speak Spanish in the classroom, even to adults.

"The teachers are in character," says school principal, Mercedes Ibarra, for a very important pedagogical reason. "If the students believe the teacher does not speak English, they are more likely to attempt to speak Spanish."

Ninety percent of the kindergarten day is conducted in Spanish here. A different teacher comes in for the English portion.

The charter school only hires teachers who are native Spanish speakers and have written and studied in Spanish as well as English. Ibarra, herself raised bi-literate, makes sure her teachers get trained on the latest techniques in language immersion instruction.

Located in Lincoln Heights, a poor and majority Latino area, LA Leadership Academy wants to prove that through bilingual education, low-income kids can do just as well as their wealthier peers.

School founder Roger Lowenstein, who spent a career as a civil rights lawyer before moving into education, says bilingualism in the school system is the way to end educational inequities. He firmly believes it will even "make kids smarter."

"All the social science research says that if you start learning a second language at age 4, 5 and 6, you are able to acquire all sorts of information so much more nimbly. You become a better student."

Franklin Language Immersion Public School

What has happened to public schools in Glendale is a rare American story.

Between 1980 and 1990, rent prices increased by 132% in Glendale, pushing longtime residents out of gentrifying neighborhoods. This also saw public school enrollment numbers plummet, and the Glendale school district considered closing schools.

What's unusual is what happened after that: a parent-lead, bilingual movement changed everything.

In 2002, Glendale Unified got a grant to start a Spanish immersion program at Edison Elementary. A few years later, a group of parents proposed a German immersion program at Franklin Elementary school. The program began in 2008. The next year, says veteran Franklin teacher, Ana Jones, the school started a Spanish and Italian immersion program.

Today, Franklin is a Magnet school offering dual language immersion in four languages—German, Spanish, Italian and French, and the Glendale school district is a leader in foreign language instruction. (Other public schools in the district teach in Korean, Armenian and Japanese.)

Enrolment has increased nearly 40% at Franklin Magnet since 2007, thanks in large part to the growth of the language immersion programs, said Craig Larimer, a financial analyst with the district.

Parent Ana Flores knew she wanted a bilingual education for her daughter, and was sold on Franklin after just one visit to its German kindergarten classroom. "This little girl, 5 yrs old, walked up to us, and was like 'te quiero leer esto,' I want to read this to you. It was an essay in German that she had written…and she read it out in German as well. This was February so it had only been one semester and she was already reading and writing in German and speaking Spanish at home and English." Flores went home and blogged about it.

As word like this got out, parents started clamoring for an immersion pre-K program at Franklin, said the school's head preschool teacher, Vanessa Guzman. The dual immersion Pre-K is not officially part of the Franklin Elementary school, so graduation from here does not guarantee a kindergarten spot. But its graduates often test as native speakers, she said.

Franklin's immersion classes have yet to reach 5th grade, the point when students generally begin testing equal to or better than their English-only peers.

3

The Dilemma

Why immigrant families are sitting out bilingual education.

With its nearly perfect student achievement scores, you’d think Latino parents would be flocking to El Marino, the Spanish immersion language school in Culver City. Its API of 931 puts the public school in the top ten percentile of California schools.

Principal Tracy Pumilia said the school has “struggled to find immigrant families or fluent Spanish speakers” to enroll in the language immersion school, which teaches children in either Japanese or Spanish and English. Each year Pumilia and her staff go door to door to find families who speak Spanish or Japanese.

She said she hears the same thing over and again: “If you already know Spanish or Japanese why would you be coming into this program?” A number of students who have tested in to El Marino as native Spanish speakers do not have Hispanic heritage.

There’s been a five-fold increase of language immersion schools in California since the early 1990s to over 300 today. Experts said the movement was fueled by some Latino parents’ interest in raising their kids bilingual, but non-native speakers are now flocking to the schools, educators said. Many immigrants and native speakers still prefer their children study only in English.

And those that do try a language immersion don’t always stick with it.

“The typical parent says: why are you spending so much time with Spanish? My child already speaks Spanish,” said Roger Lowenstein, who founded LA Leadership Academy, a Spanish-language immersion charter school in predominantly Latino Lincoln Heights.

And then there’s the concern that learning in multiple languages can hurt kids—that they won’t end up competent in either.

“Families have been told this for decades, that if your child doesn't start learning English right away or if there is any other language going on that is going to compete with the English [then the child] would lag behind in English [in] school,” said University of Redlands professor, Barbara Conboy.

Some will point to the difficult experience of a friend, neighbor—or their own child—who struggled when suddenly plunged into a new language at the age of 5 or 6.

Conboy said social science research into dual-learner’s fifth-grade test scores and brain research that she has conducted show that it’s not harmful, quite the contrary.

“The competition between the languages can be good,” she said, because it exercises parts of the brain involved in higher-level thinking and impulse control.

Some children of immigrants who grew up in an English-only world are now challenging their parents’ beliefs.

“Second and third generation Latino immigrants [are] becoming parents now and they are realizing that they want to maintain the same culture that they grew up with. And they realize that culture involves the language, but that they don’t speak it,” said Ana Flores, who founded the blog Spanglishbaby.com and wrote a book called “Bilingual is Better.”

Below are the stories of two Latino immigrant families who sent their children to immersion schools in Southern California. Both were hoping they would turn out completely fluent in both languages. In one case, it worked. In the other, it didn’t.

Bilingual schools have quietly built a fan base in Southern California, but some immigrant families don't see the point

Meet the Reyes family

From 19 year-old Alejandro, to 8 year-old Lisbet, Veronica Reyes' five children play soccer, play with dolls, surf the internet, and sing, equally well in Spanish and English.

It's not forced, and no one switches to English to accommodate an English-speaking visitor. It's exactly what Reyes wanted.

Reyes, a full-time mother who occasionally subs as an assistant preschool teacher, left Chihuahua, Mexico, for California as a teenager twenty five years ago.

Here she met her husband, a landscape gardener, and the young couple settled in San Bernardino. As they started raising a family, she worried that her children might not be able to communicate with her relatives back home.

"When I went [to visit] my family, I thought my kids wouldn't be able to talk to anyone," she said. "But it was the opposite. The kids could talk with everyone, and they all said: ‘It doesn't seem like they live there because they speak perfectly!' So I'm very happy."

Like many Latino families, Reyes decided to speak only Spanish to her children so they would retain language and cultural heritage.

But she also went a step further. In 1998, she enrolled her eldest son, Alejandro in the neighborhood elementary school. As she was filling out the forms, the admissions staff explained that the school taught in Spanish—it was a dual-language immersion school. Reyes was a little skeptical, but enrolled her son Alejandro anyway.

At the time, there were fewer than a hundred immersion schools in the entire state.

Alejandro's first few years of school were full of pride—and doubt—for his mother. Reyes was thrilled to see her son learning to read and write fluently in his native language. She was concerned when his teachers reported that his English in kindergarten, first and second grades, was far behind his level of Spanish.

Teachers reassured her that this was normal for a child being educated in two languages and that he would catch up, but she still worried. She desperately wanted her children to go to college, something she never achieved for herself, and if Alejandro's English was poor, he'd never gain admission. Still, she stuck with it.

Today, Alejandro is a freshman at Marymount College in Palos Verdes on a $40,000 scholarship. Reyes proudly relates the story of how he landed a highly sought campus job in the Admissions office because he speaks multiple languages.

Alejandro is pursuing Psycholinguistics, the study of how humans acquire languages through a psychological and neurobiological lens. He's headed to France this semester on a study abroad program.

But what Reyes brags about the most is that they text message mostly in Spanish. And Alejandro is constantly correcting her: "Put an accent here," he tells her, or, "Mama, you don't write it like that, you write it like this."

She was so impressed by his education, that she put all of her children in language immersion, once standing in line at 4 a.m. to nab a spot. She no longer worries that poor early scores in English means they will not do well at school, or learn English.

It's not just Alejandro's mother who is proud of what he has achieved, his four younger siblings look up to him like a superstar. Eleven year-old Leslie wants to follow her big brother's path.

"I want to study Linguistic Psychology at College," she said.

The Reyes children who are still at home with their parents attend the Norton Space and Aeronautics Academy, a Spanish language immersion school in San Bernardino. Reyes fills in at the school from time to time as the teacher's assistant.

With Alejandro away at college, 16 year-old Adrian is the oldest child in the Reyes home.

Adrian, who ends every sentence with "that's what I think," is a DJ, spinning music for local parties and events. His genre of choice is Mexican pop. He likes mixing up Ranchero with American pop, but most often will spin "Mexican dancey songs and sometimes its English so I can get it poppin'. So that's what I think."

Meet the Umaña family

Sandra Umaña always thought her children would be bilingual.

She learned English at 30 years of age after moving from Los Angeles to Boston. Salvadoran by birth, she said she didn't bother to learn it when she first arrived in Los Angeles in her 20s because she didn't need it: everyone in her neighborhood spoke Spanish.

"I am Hispanic," she said. "Spanish is my first language and I wanted my kids to speak Spanish."

But Umaña's kids have never spoken Spanish. Teaching them her language when they were babies was "complicated."

Her second husband was German, so the couple communicated in the only language they had in common: English.

Umaña never let go of her desire that her children learn Spanish one day, if for no other reason than to be able to communicate with her father, who they call "Papa Ben."

She thought she'd get her chance when, after a divorce she moved to Lincoln Heights near her brothers in 2009.

The youngest of her two children, Diego, was five and ready for school. Down the road was a new charter school that offered a Spanish immersion program. Umaña was thrilled and enrolled Diego.

What happened next was not what she expected. Umaña started getting daily calls from the school.

"He was acting out," she says. "He wants to go to the bathroom all the time, and then he got a friend in the hallway and they were playing."

Diego had never disobeyed instructions like this before. A nurse, Umaña cut her hours down at Kindred hospital in West Covina to three days a week so she could be in the classroom with Diego for two days.

Kindergarteners at the school, LA Leadership Academy, spend 90 percent of the day in Spanish. Umaña witnessed that he didn't understand what was being said and wasn't motivated to try.

"He was bored," Umaña said. "He loves attention and he loves to talk. He won't sit quiet and if he doesn't understand it's even worse."

Outside of school, Diego was embarrassed when neighbors his age knew things he didn't --like the months of the year. "Mom, how come he knows that? I don't know that. Can you tell me?" he would ask her.

That was more than she could take. Not only was her son acting in a way he had never done before, he was now falling behind in his basic education. She pulled him out after one year and put Diego in a traditional school.

"And now that he is over there," she said of his new public school, "he acts more normal. He is able to sit and follow directions and do the work."

Umaña blames herself for Diego's experience at the Spanish immersion school.

"Maybe it's because I'm a single mother. Maybe it's because I work a lot," Umaña said with a sigh. "I feel like I failed because I wasn't able to teach them [Spanish]."

But her children are happy.

Monica, Umaña's eldest child, is 14 and gets good grades at school. She has a horse which she keeps at the Rosebowl Riders club in Pasadena, and she wants to be a vet when she grows up. Diego, now 6, loves playing with cars. He constantly quizzes his mother and older sister to see if they know the math problems he is learning in first grade.

She still believes they'll learn Spanish. When they're older, she'll take them to El Salvador for an extended vacation—a Spanish immersion of another kind.

A conversation with Jan Corea

Chief Executive Officer, California Association of Bilingual Education

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A KPCC community program

Should Kids’ Classrooms Be English-Only?

A talk about bilingual education in Southern California

On Saturday, January 26th, join KPCC’s Early Childhood Development correspondent Deepa Fernandes for Should Kids' Classrooms Be English-Only?, a conversation about those and other questions surrounding bilingual education in Southern California. A panel of professional- and parent guests will kick off this audience-inclusive discussion to be held at Los Angeles Leadership Academy Primary School in Lincoln Heights.