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UM’s Language House speaks anything but English

COLLEGE PARK — Upstairs in the St. Mary’s Hall apartments at the University of Maryland, students have conversations in Spanish or French. Downstairs they speak Japanese. The only language students can’t speak most of the time is English.

The 100 students in the Language House live an immersion lifestyle. They are required to speak their language of study 80 percent of the time. And they often practice more than one.

“They wake up and speak the language,” said Phoenix Liu, director of the program. “It’s like study abroad without studying abroad.”

The Language House is a thriving example of language immersion programs that have been increasing in schools across the nation. There are currently about 2,000 immersion programs in elementary and middle schools in the U.S., according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education newsletter.

These programs have grown in the past 40 years. The first immersion programs began in California in the 1970s and were based on French-language programs in Canada. They continued to grow throughout the 1980s and ’90s, according to Marty Abbott, the director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Graduates looking for jobs now have a new set of requirements: language proficiency. And with technology making it easier to travel and connect with other people and cultures, it’s increasingly important for students to learn foreign languages. Language House students have gone on to work as ambassadors, business leaders, translators and teachers. These occupations can require high levels of language skills.

“We’re in a world where people need to be able to speak more than one language,” said Judith Klimpl, the Montgomery County program supervisor for foreign language instruction. “We’re not an English-speaking world.”

Most immersion programs are Spanish or French, but there also are studies in Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, German, Italian and other languages, according to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota. Montgomery County immersion programs are mostly in Spanish, French and Chinese. There are also German programs in Fairfax County, Va., according to Abbott.

“Other institutions have a Spanish house, a German house, but we have 10 languages under the same roof,” Liu said. It’s important for students studying a foreign language to be exposed to others trying to learn languages, she said. Students in the Language House need to be at an intermediate level to be accepted into the program. The 10 languages, called clusters in the House, are: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Russian and Spanish.

Undergraduate or graduate student mentors live in St. Mary’s Hall apartments with Language House students and often come from the country where the foreign language is prominent. Matya Magnezi, the Hebrew cluster mentor, lived in Katzir, a northern town in Israel, until she was 9.

“You really have to put yourself out there because you speak the language all the time,” said Magnezi, a senior and resident assistant in the Language House. “You have a roommate and have to speak to that roommate in the language. It can be challenging to always have to speak Hebrew with a limited vocabulary. You have to make do with whatever words you know.”

Magnezi plans lessons for the Hebrew cluster of the Language House. She covered two walls entirely in Hebrew words. “The challenge of being a mentor is seeing how to help people improve,” she said. “People respond to different methods. Some people are more self-conscious about their speaking ability.”

She is the Hebrew cluster’s main resource. “Whenever they’re unsure about something they ask me and I have to make sure I’m helping in the best way I can,” Magnezi said. “It’s a huge personal responsibility.”

Global interests aren’t the only ones involved in these programs. Academic achievement is a major reason for the growth of these programs.

Immersion programs tend to yield high levels of proficiency in students, especially in listening and pronunciation, according to Abbott. There are significant cognitive processes in the brain when children learn two languages. “More synapses happen, you’re exercising another area of the brain that wouldn’t be exercised,” she said.

And when students are involved in immersion programs, they “develop an openness and acceptance to people who speak other languages and come from other cultures,” Abbott said. “I think that’s an increasingly important ability to have as we grow up in a much more diverse environment.”

These programs provide a fairly cost-effective way for schools to offer foreign language instruction. The teachers involved are regular members of the school staff. “When that’s the teacher who teaches math and science, then it’s not an additional staffing issue for the school,” Abbott said.

Immersion programs are being implemented in Delaware as the turnaround method for students with low achievement in inner-city schools, according to Abbott. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell has an initiative for 20 immersion programs to be implemented in Delaware schools in the next five years.

Students in the Language House usually leave the program with high levels of fluency or conversational skills, especially in listening and speaking, according to Liu.

“The best part of it is just seeing how much people have improved,” Magnezi said. “One of the girls who started last year could barely speak Hebrew and now she’s improved so much and she wants to make aliyah (a return to Israel). I’m pretty impressed.”