By Christina Burton Howe
Your community will be curious and interested in your Chinese language program, but not all stakeholders will understand the need for teaching critical languages and the benefits in using the immersion approach. Community members—teachers, administrators, parents, students, state education professionals, legislators, business members, heritage groups, and funders—will each hold different, and at times conflicting, perspectives. Identifying and understanding these different perspectives is the first step in designing a thoughtful marketing and advocacy plan.
Anticipating the different reactions to your program will help you build a broad base of support during the initial program planning and opening phases, and to sustain that support through the years ahead. Pre-program implementation and ongoing sustainability demand consistent, proactive ways of getting your message out to the community. It is crucial that your district or school take the lead in initiating this dialogue, in branding and marketing your program to potential students and their parents, and in developing an ongoing public relations strategy that engages the different constituencies.
In the pre-program planning phase, your marketing plan should identify the different stakeholders in your community and potential biases or prejudices that might exist. Some questions to consider:
The benefits of learning a world language on student’s cognitive and academic development are well established, and this research makes an excellent foundation for promoting your program, especially to prospective parents. It is crucial to explain that an immersion program is not about just learning a new language, but rather it is learning through, and being immersed in, a second language.
The earlier and more intensely a child begins language learning the better, with research suggesting that children as young as three years old can benefit cognitively from bilingual education. Numerous studies demonstrate a correlation between the study of languages and increases in higher-order critical thinking and problem solving. Cognitive processing, including perceptual discrimination and organization or spatial reasoning and more advanced verbal processing are demonstrably higher in bilingual students. One study of French immersion students in kindergarten through fourth grade found that the bilingual students had higher I.Q. measures over a five-year period when compared to their peers who had received instruction in one language only. Other benefits of bilingualism include decreased memory loss and other age-related cognitive losses, increased social and problem solving skills, and increased brain function related to attention and inhibition. Given the cognitive benefits of learning a second language, it stands to reason that full to partial immersion models, with their longer sequences, increased proficiency, and intense language instruction are better than traditional FLES models.
In addition to the benefits to cognitive development, learning another language also offers increased academic benefits. Students in immersion programs do as well or better than their peers in English-only programs, while also gaining the cross-cultural skills and global perspectives that immersion programs foster. Multiple studies suggest that students who study a second language demonstrate gains in other subjects such as mathematics and English reading. They also do better on college entrance exams than their monolingual peers. Many of the skills learned in studying a language are transferrable and provide students with higher levels of print awareness, metalinguistic understanding, and more sophisticated analytic skills.
While the cognitive and academic benefits can be realized in any immersion program, full immersion is most critical with the Chinese language since Mandarin requires 1,200 instructional hours to reach proficiency versus 600 instructional hours for cognate languages such as Spanish or French. Full to partial immersion models can:
As you market your program and promote the benefits of learning through immersion, it’s highly likely that parents and other community members will raise concerns about the impact on speaking, reading, and writing English. In your marketing efforts, aim to dispel the myth that less time in English instruction lowers student achievement on English-language state tests. More time in a second language will not decrease a student’s ability to learn English, or to master content in English. Additionally, it is important to note that immersion does not have a negative impact on English language learners. Contrary to what many believe, teaching English learners in their native language does not impede their learning of English. While this is counterintuitive to the adult learner, children come pre-wired to learn multiple languages, and plunging into these different languages does not impede them, but rather has demonstrable cognitive and academic benefits, as noted above. Research supports an additive bilingualism approach—one that uses the first language as a building block for teaching the second (or third) language—as opposed to a subtractive approach, which removes the first language and replaces it with English.
The success of your program will rely on your making a strong case for the benefits of bilingualism in your marketing and public relations efforts. By explicitly describing the cognitive and academic research on language learning in parent meetings, community presentations, and professional development sessions, as well as in distributed print materials, you can build understanding of the benefits of immersion and consequentially, wider support for your program.
For a comprehensive review of the cognitive and academic benefits of immersion, see Myriam Met’s essay “Elementary School Foreign Languages: What Research Can and Cannot Tell Us,” in Critical Issues in Foreign Language Instruction (1991), and Deborah Robinson’s essay “The Cognitive, Academic, and Attitudinal Benefits of Early Language Learning” in Critical Issues in Early Second Language Learning: Building for Our Children’s Future (1998). Another good resource is “What Research Shows” on the ACTFL's website.
While all program development in schools requires strong leadership, implementing a Chinese immersion program especially requires leaders who can clearly articulate the value of language learning to students, their parents, and the greater community. Leaders will need to lead the communication effort, guide program development, and serve as the primary advocate during start-up, all the while remembering the context in which the program is being developed.
Promoting critical language learning is not value-neutral. Rather, it is precisely because language and culture are so interwoven with personal identity and values that conflicts will inevitably arise. For example, one principal reported that a member of her school accountability committee asked her, “Are you going to teach anything American?” A strong leader will be able to guide the community through the different questions and concerns that arise, yet steer the focus back to the cognitive, academic, and attitudinal benefits that Chinese immersion programs give students. It also helps to keep a sense of humor!
School and district leaders will need to intentionally develop a sense of community that is supportive of the immersion program across the school and district. Create buy-in from all faculty, not just the immersion faculty, by fostering grade-level team support, both vertically and horizontally among grades. Connect students, parents, and teachers by sponsoring school- or district-wide events that engage both the immersion and non-immersion programs in schools. Cultural or arts events, a model United Nations student forum, or a digital initiative will help students connect across content and language areas.
Ideally, program advocates should keep their message straightforward, consistent, and transparent. Address faculty concerns, and demonstrate how everyone in the school and district will benefit from adding an immersion program. Use concrete examples of how language immersion has worked in different programs, providing specific student success stories. Outline expected academic and language standards and outcomes. In your presentations and print materials, include slides with specific data related to increased student achievement, graduation rates, and advanced placement testing results. (Sources for comparative data include ACTFL, CAL, and CARLA.)
To reach out to your community, turn to a high-quality marketing and advocacy plan with specific communication strategies to reach different target audiences, including parents, teachers, and administrators in the school and district, as well as the community at large. Be transparent and accessible, providing translated materials in both print form and online. Following are key elements in a successful marketing plan.
In addition to a written marketing plan that includes your message and communication strategies, program leaders also need a written recruitment plan that clearly explains the enrollment process and requirements. Be prepared to discuss the specifics of your program, including questions like the following.
Parents will also appreciate supportive data on stages of second-language acquisition and how the brain learns another language. When digging into these larger issues, include information on the practical and cultural differences in Chinese and American educational systems. This background knowledge will help mitigate misunderstandings during parent–teacher conferences, or communicating about discipline or special needs.
Sustaining Community Support for the Long Term
As your program grows and students mature, your marketing and advocacy plan must develop as well. Your program may be more familiar, but this does not mean public relations will take a backseat. From the program’s third year onward, sustain its public profile with efforts such as the following.
Create a strong parent support group that can serve as advocates for your immersion program, particularly during times of funding cuts.
While marketing and advocacy may take a different form as your program grows, the need to actively share your story will not diminish. Don’t assume that your program is understood, even after you are well established. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” While it is easy to believe that your successes will speak for themselves, thoughtful marketing and advocacy are essential for continued recognition and respect for your program.