Those involved in the enrollment process are probably aware that there are various language programs available through SFUSD schools. It is wonderful that there are so many options available to parents. Many of these choices were not available when we ourselves were in school. This fact, can make choosing a language program confusing for many of us. In this post, I’ll attempt to provide a background for understanding the benefits of multi-lingual education, as well as an overview of the different types of students and programs available.

Research Behind Multilingual Education
The first step in understanding language programs is to understand current research behind language acquisition in babies and children. According to research by Barbara Lust of Cornell University, author of Child Language: Acquisition and Growth, we begin to process language from the moment we are born.

“Already at birth, even before they speak or understand language, infants begin processing the speech stream around them in order to determine the sounds of the language (phonology), and the form of the phrases and sentences of the language (syntax). By the time they are 12 months of age, they will have ‘cracked the code’ for many of these properties as they get ready to launch into their first produced words.”

In her online article, Discovering Child Language and Cognitive Growth Barbara Lust cites current research which supports the idea that children’s brains are wired for learning languages. So much so that they will naturally acquire multiple languages when they are surrounded by them, without “confusion, language delay or cognitive defect.”

Below I have excerpted some helpful information…

Tips for Parents

  • Surround the child with as much rich language and language exchange as possible, beginning from birth.
  • Children learn not only from language you address to them, but from language they overhear around them (Au, Knightly, Jun, & Oh, 2002). Linguistic interaction, can add positive effects on linguistic development.
  • Although exposure to language is essential, explicit “drilling” is not needed for the normally developing child; parents will not be ‘teaching’ the child so much as the child will discover language; they are as one scholar put it “spontaneous apprentices” (Miller, 1976).
  • Read to children, encourage them to talk about what is read, and surround them with language through literacy.
  • Share with your child the joy of words and language.


Raising a Bilingual Child

  • Cognitive advantages follow from becoming bilingual. These cognitive advantages can contribute to your child’s future academic success.
  • Social advantages follow from becoming bilingual. By fostering bilingualism (or multilingualism) in your child you make it possible for them to access other cultures and other worlds in ways monolinguals cannot.
  • Learning and exposure to another language at an early age may produce the best outcomes in attaining native-like language proficiency
  • Developing bilingualism (or multilingualism) does not impede language acquisition in any language.
  • Conscious planning and effort may be needed in order to provide the child with an environment that will support more than one language.
  • Surround the child with more than one language through conversations and social groups using different languages; the earlier the better.
  • Maintain home (heritage) language when a 2nd language is being learned outside the home.
  • Expose children to live multilingual settings, often with peers (e.g., play groups).
  • Provide fun and interactive language learning environments in both languages, often with peers (e.g., music, dance, and film).
  • Promote reading and story-telling in multiple languages.
  • Maintain a positive attitude toward languages/cultures children learn.
  • You do not need to maintain a one person-one language situation; your child will sort out the languages by themselves.

Various Language Programs and Terms
Based on the research, enrolling your child in a language program would seem to be a great option. SFUSD provides language programs for both students who are learning English, as well as English-only speakers who wish to learn another language. Though parents may be familiar with the general concepts and benefits of multi-lingual programs, they may find the terminology confusing. The following list of and terms (adapted from the PPSF glossary) will provide a brief overview of terminology. (If you’re interested in learning more about SFUSD programs and enrollment see pp. 6-11 of the SFUSD Enrollment Guide located on the Educational Placement Center website.)

Home Language: The primary language that the student speaks at home.

ELL: English Language Learner. These are students those whose home language is one other than English. ELLs are a very diverse group, encompassing students who are both Newcomers (see below) and second or third generation Americans. In some cases students may have been born in the United States, but speak a primary language other than English. They may be fluent in English when speaking with their peers, but require extra support in learning Academic English used in the classroom.

Bilingual/biliterate:
Students who are able to speak and/or read and write in two languages.

Newcomer: These students have newly immigrated to the United States and require special supports to develop English language fluency. Students needing special support in this category may be very literate in their home language but need extra support in keeping up with content area instruction (e.g. science, social-studies). On the contrary, some newcomers come to school with no formal education and lack fluency in their primary language. These students may require even more support.

ELA: English/Language Arts. Another term for English curriculum. The focus is on reading, speaking, listening, and writing skills.

ELD: English Language Development. In reality, all students are developing fluency in English. From enrollment through graduation, students are learning how the English language is organized (phonics, grammar) and how we use language in various ways to understand our world and communicate ideas (reading, writing and speaking).

Bilingual education: An in-school program for students whose first language is not English or who have limited English skills. Bilingual education provides English language development plus subject area instruction in the student’s native language. The goal is for the child to gain knowledge and be literate in two languages. (EdSource) These classes are NOT available to native English speakers.

Immersion education: A program that teaches children to speak, read, and write in a second language by surrounding them with conversation and instruction in that language. Note that English immersion may differ from other immersion programs. (Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin and Spanish are available). These classes are available to both native English Speakers, English Language Learners and students who are Bi-literate.

FLES: Foreign language in the Elementary. Students in these programs develop competency in a second language while becoming fully proficient in English. (Italian, Russian and Japanese are available.)
Secondary World Language: These programs are designed for all students (ELL, native English speakers, etc.) and are available in middle and high school. If you are a parent who is a native English speaker, these classes are similar to those many have taken in their own schooling. (Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Russian, and Spanish are taught).

What are Your Experiences?
I am just entering this process and would love to hear from other parents who have children currently enrolled in language programs. What are the benefits and challenges for children and parents involved in such programs? What recommendations would you share with parents embarking on the enrollment process?

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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