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World Language Students Begin The Year With Full Immersion Learning

Marlborough's World Language department recognizes American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) national recommendation for full language immersion at all grade levels, works towards a goal of increasing language proficiency with new initiative

As classes began this year, students may have noticed a change in their language class, specifically that their teachers are speaking to them exclusively in Spanish, French, or Chinese. This is due to the World Language department's new language immersion initiative.

The World Language department has always used the target language in class as much as possible, but this year they are doubling down on that effort and reducing the use of English to around five minutes of a 55 minute class for lower level classes, reserving English for answering questions, clarification, and grammatical issues. For upper level classes, the target language is being used almost entirely.

Part of this change comes from the recommendations of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), which is the national organization on the cutting edge of proficiency testing. One of their recommendations has been full language immersion at all grade levels, starting in Kindergarten and continuing all the way through graduate school.

Dr. Reinholtz, Marlborough's World Language Department Head, is aware that some students, particularly those with less second language experience, may have some initial shock with full immersion. "That can be a little nerve wracking," he said. "But if you want to learn how to swim, how much time do you spend on dry land? You want to swim, you jump into the pool."

The department's goal in making this change is to foster students' ability to use context clues to understand new words and phrases, just as you do when learning English.

"We want to get the students comfortable with decoding the language. If you're in Ecuador and the person doesn't speak English, asking them what a word means isn't going to do you any good," explains Dr. Reinholtz. "Nobody is expecting you to understand everything. We're expecting that you're going to sit and work and listen, listen, listen...and ultimately get comfortable speaking."

Dr. Reinholtz compares the immersion experience to learning the lyrics to a new song. At first you don't know any of them, but you listen closely and start to sing lyrics during part of the song. There are some parts you still don't understand, but with further listening you learn more.

With this initiative, the department will also be exploring the possibility of having all students in Chinese, French, and Spanish take a online proficiency test based on ACTFL standards of proficiency, stressing the importance that proficiency, not fluency, is the real measure of ability. "The idea of being fluent is something of a myth. It sounds good, but if I take out any book, I can probably find a term that educated native English speakers don't know," says Dr. Reinholtz. "Proficiency really means how well you can understand a native speaker and how well you can communicate in comprehensible use of that language."

Even without the full immersion program, students have been learning well with positive results. Marlborough offers AP French and AP Spanish, as well as AP Chinese through the Online School For Girls. While Marlborough AP language students typically have a near 100% passing rate on the AP exam, this alone doesn't satisfy the department.

"Marlborough isn't a place where we say it's been doing pretty well so let's leave it alone," says Dr. Reinholtz. "We're always looking at how we can do it better. We think this way we can obtain a greater degree of proficiency for more students. And, of course, if students aren't comfortable with an immersion classroom, we also offer an excellent Latin program."

"We've had a very positive response," he continues. "If I know something about Marlborough girls after working here for fourteen years, it's that they like a challenge."

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