You might receive these greetings if you stick your head into the classrooms of many Utah elementary schools. But you’ll also hear much more than “hello” in Mandarin, Portuguese, French, and Spanish.
Children as young as five are learning subjects like math and science in foreign languages through Dual Language Immersion (DLI) in elementary schools and the Critical Languages Program (CLP) in secondary schools—programs that are spreading like wildfire throughout the state of Utah.
Since the beginning of Utah’s language programs six years ago, the state has become a national leader in language instruction. This past year the New York Times and Time magazine ,visited to find out why representatives from twenty-two other states have turned to Utah as the model of language teaching.
The success of Utah’s language instruction began in 2008 when great minds from across the state came together to improve what was then a weak language emphasis in schools. Chinese professor and director of BYU’s Chinese Flagship Center (CFC) Dana Bourgerie and Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. initiated the Governor’s Language Summit to discuss Utah’s language education policies.
Getting the state congress involved, Gregg Roberts, a world languages and dual-immersion specialist at the Utah State Office of Education, worked with Senator Howard Stephenson to pass two bills that enacted dual immersion and critical languages programs in schools across Utah.
“A lot of collaboration is going on in and around the state,” says Bourgerie. “One of the reasons Utah has done well is that people have stepped up and not let other differences divide them politically when building the language capacity. Gregg Roberts often notes that we are not a red state or a blue state. We are a purple state.”
What began as an idea has now become a reality. Last fall there were DLI programs in ninety-eight Utah schools: twenty-eight Chinese programs, eleven French, fifty-four Spanish, and four Portuguese—a language added for the 2013–14 school year.
The DLI program is based on a fifty-fifty two-teacher model. Students spend half of each school day with an elementary-licensed teacher and the other half with a target-language teacher. They are expected to continue their language study in junior high school and pass the Advanced Placement test in ninth grade. The state is also working with BYU and the University of Utah to offer 200- and 300-level target-language courses at distance-learning labs in high schools.
After high school, language education continues in programs like STARTALK, the CFC’s three-week summer intensive program, and the BYU Chinese Flagship Language Program. Shayn Stevens is one of the first students to pass through the CLP. She was a regular student who had a great Chinese teacher in high school and then participated in STARTALK. She studied in a preparatory early flagship language program in her early years at BYU, attended a study abroad, and continued her BYU experience with advanced flagship courses and skills. Now twenty-one, she is the first Utah STARTALK student to be accepted into the Overseas Chinese Flagship capstone program, and this fall she will be directly enrolled in Nanjing University—one of the top five universities in China.
Bourgerie believes Stevens’s story shouldn’t be uncommon. “You don’t have to have a genius, just a good student who has an interest and a strong work ethic,” she says. “There is something wrong if a good, solid 3.3-GPA student can’t have a transformational experience. My vision is that when more students come here with advanced language levels, we can mainstream what is unusual now.”
Studying language can even help raise those GPAs. Research shows DLI students score as well as or better than non-DLI peers on core assessments.
Bourgerie believes that language programs like Utah’s will strengthen collegiate language study. “If flagship is about global professionals, then language is an important skill,” she says. “We needed a better pipeline, and we’re interested in anything that would help create better language programs K–12.”
Roberts sees these programs as the door to the future, fixing an ailment of the past: “Monolingualism,” he says, “is the illiteracy of the twenty-first century.”