For El Marino Language School teacher Liz Mejia, the 40th anniversary of language immersion in Culver City has special meaning—she was one of the program’s early students in 1972 at Linwood Howe Elementary. Now a teacher in the Spanish immersion program with two kids to boot, she is one of El Marino’s many passionate advocates for the power of bilingualism to alter the way students learn.
“Our mantra is that, ‘We want multilingual, multicultural, multi-literate global citizens,’ so that they understand that there is a world beyond their family and their city,” Mejia said.
To mark the anniversary, Culver City schools have organized a weekend full of speakers and cultural programs celebrating language immersion.
For those not in-the-know, language immersion is characterized by using a second language as the method of instruction. Instead of a student learning a language via only conjugation and vocabulary, students have the benefit of learning math, science, social studies and history in their chosen language. Immersion students at El Marino are also able to take flamenco classes or Taiko drums to enhance their Spanish and Japanese cultural experience.
El Marino and La Ballona Elementary are the only elementary schools in the district to offer language immersion.
Culver City parents have rave reviews for the district’s Spanish and Japanese immersion programs. Board of Education President Scott Zeidman has one child currently at El Marino, but both of his kids have gone through the Japanese immersion program at the school. “My 8-year-old speaks better Japanese than English,” he said. “It’s a great way to speak to his grandma, who is Japanese.”
El Marino parent Dan O’Brien says, “It’s been a fantastic experience. I really appreciate the diversity of the student body. It’s every color of the rainbow. The biggest thing I notice is that my kids speak Spanish fluently.”
On the national level, language immersion programs have been growing in popularity. According to an article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, there are as many as 1,000 immersion programs in the United States, with California and Texas as the forerunners.
Fueling the popularity is research showing that students who learn language early actually outperform their monolingual peers on standardized tests, as the young learner’s brain is able to process information differently, said El Marino Principal Tracy Pumilia.
However, there is still an undercurrent of negativity surrounding such curricula in the minds of some parents who speak English as a second language. Mejia knows this stigma all too well. “My mom is from Philadelphia and is an English speaker; she is Caucasian. My dad is from Cuba; he is a native Spanish speaker with choppy English. When my mom saw an article in the paper for Linwood Howe, she said, ‘I want our daughter in this school.’ My dad said, ‘I came to this country, I can teach her Spanish. I want her to learn English in school.’
“What I tell all of the Latino parents,” Mejia says, “is that the kids are not learning the spoken, choppy Spanish but how to read, write and speak fluent Spanish, so that they will have a well-rounded education. The whole plan is that not only will they learn English but also that they will keep their Spanish.”
To celebrate the growth of language immersion in Culver City, El Marino will be conducting a three-day symposium, entitled “Looking Back, Leading the Way” starting Friday and ending Sunday. The event will feature panels of language immersion experts, as well as a keynote speech from Yong Zhao, presidential chair and associate dean for global education in the College of Education at the University of Oregon.
There will also be a celebration of Spanish and Japanese culture at El Marino on Saturday. In addition, Culver City's language immersion alumni will be able to reconnect this weekend; even Mejia will be able to see her first-grade teacher, Violet Fier, at the celebration.
As language immersion instructors, administrators and parents look toward the future, many believe it will be bright for those involved in the learning method.
“Many parents say, 'I wish that there was a program like this for me.' It’s not just for Latino families; it’s for everyone,” Mejia said.