OGDEN — Learning two languages is becoming commonplace in the Top of Utah as more schools offer dual-immersion language programs and employers look to hire workers who speak more than one language.
The state of Utah began offering school districts money to start dual-immersion programs about six years ago.
Davis School District jumped on board and now is starting an extensive immersion program at the secondary level, as students have worked their way through the program in elementary school. In a dual-immersion program, students spend half their schoolday learning everything from math to science to grammar in a foreign language. According to the state curriculum, only the foreign language can be spoken for that half of the day.
Davis offers French, Chinese and Spanish immersion programs in four elementary schools.
Weber School District offers Chinese and Spanish in four schools, while Ogden School District offers Spanish in two schools.
Julie Peterson, principal of Eagle Bay Elementary School in Farmington, says her school offered the first program in the Davis district and one of the first in the state.
Watching the process of the program has been amazing, she says.
Weber School District Curriculum Supervisor Kathleen Nye says her district is excited to see test results from fourth-graders this year because that is when the academics in all areas are supposed to increase dramatically for the students.
According to studies in other states, cognitive thinking and reasoning skills skyrocket for students learning two languages.
Cheryl Rankin, principal at T.O. Smith Elementary in Ogden, has seen her students’ eyes open to a whole new world and sees them thinking in more creative ways.
She is even seeing some of the native Spanish-speaking students in the program picking up English more quickly.
Nye sees another benefit: “There is lots of interest in learning languages in our global world.”
One reason the district chose to offer Chinese in dual immersion is because the language is often used in global markets.
“Being able to speak both languages is a huge advantage in the long run,” Rankin agrees.
Peterson says the program does two things for her students: It improves cognitive skills, like memory, and it provides a greater cultural awareness among students.
“There is a positive attitude toward other cultures,” she says.
Weber officials are already considering how the district will get college-level Mandarin Chinese instructors for when these fourth-graders hit junior high.
More and more parents are tapping into the dual-immersion resource.
“This is the first year we have had to turn parents away (from the program),” Nye says.
All involved say that while the program is taking off like lightning in the state, it is important for districts not to move beyond their ability to support the program through hiring and training.
Davis district spokesman Chris Williams says it can be a challenge to find qualified teachers for the classes and districts have to be able to take the time to find the right fit.
The state helps the district recruit teachers who are native language speakers.
Nye thinks the Legislature will continue to be generous in funding the program because legislators do see the importance of it.
Utah residents also have another leg up in the foreign language department with many returning missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who speak more than one language.
Former Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey says bilingual ability has been a huge boon. Many companies wanting to relocate to the Ogden area would often ask about the availability of bilingual speakers.
The abundance of such individuals always helped put Ogden on the short list, he says.
“It is absolutely key,” he says of having a strong pool of individuals fluent in more than one language.
“We have so many returned missionaries from all over the world. ... Few other areas have that kind of diversity.”