Careers and Ed: The language of learning

Immersion programs make kids better Americans

Perhaps the best thing my parents ever did for me was to raise me as a Persian in America. I hated this at the time, not understanding why I needed to learn how to perform Persian dances, eat Persian food, or speak Farsi if we weren't actually in Iran. I now realize I was lucky not only to find a cultural identity but also to experience living in two cultures — and with two languages — at once.

Not all children have a built-in culture base at home, though. But they can have the next best thing if they're enrolled in language immersion programs, particularly if they start early.

"Language is a natural phenomenon within us, and the earlier we open it, the better," says David Fierberg, the events and communications manager of the French American International School. "It's an important tool in a child's development and opens up new pathways of thought, creating a stronger cultural awareness."

That's why schools around the Bay Area are increasingly embracing this method of schooling. Some are already established in the city, such as the FAIS, which was founded in 1962. Others are just getting started, such as Starr King Elementary School, where a Mandarin immersion program for kindergarten students just finished its first year.

And such programs are available at all levels. The Scandinavian School, for example, is a preschool that uses the educational techniques of its eponymous region, while the FAIS has extensive prekindergarten–to–eighth grade and high school programs. In most cases the experience isn't just about teaching a particular language or culture but also about presenting a different kind of education.


At the FAIS the demand for a rigorous education starts young, and admission is competitive. Those accepted are sent straight on the full-immersion pathway, with a curriculum developed by the French Ministry of Education. Grades K to three are taught 80 percent in French and 20 percent in English, while third grade through middle school is split 50-50. From then on French is a large part of the high school student's education, with certain classes taught only in French or only in English.

"There is sort of a natural flow," Fierberg says. "The students learn both French and English history and culture, government. Drama is taught in French, as is sports, while music classes are held in English. And French and English math is taught."

French and English math? But isn't math a universal language?

Yes, Fierberg says. But the methodologies are different. In France, math is more process oriented, focusing on formulas and word problems. American math is more answer oriented. In other subjects the FAIS places a French-method emphasis on oral presentation, memorization of poetry, and dictées, wherein teachers read a paragraph and students write what they hear.


Though the Scandinavian School only teaches preschool students, its educational methods are still clearly different from American — and French — traditions. In fact, director and teacher Mimmi Skoglund finds the Scandinavian method often challenges the expectations of her students' American parents, who ask questions like "Why doesn't my child come home with things done at school every day?"

"We try to clarify that it is not the product that is important, it's the process," Skoglund explains. "That, I think, is very Scandinavian. I have never had that question in Sweden. Another question that always comes up is discipline. [We] try to solve problems, figure out what happened, and come up with a solution — and most of the time, the children are involved.