The holidays have past, things have settled, and many moms are starting to think about where to send their preschooler for Kindergarten in September. I know this because every year around this time, I start getting questions about my kids’ school. Three people stopped me yesterday!

My kids are lucky enough to go to a full immersion Spanish school with Mandarin enrichment. “Full immersion” means students are taught in a foreign language from Day 1. In our family’s case, my kids walked into the classroom on the first day of Kindergarten and heard only Spanish. Programs like it are popping up all over the country, but many parents don’t really know what to make of them. My bilingual teaching background gave me a basic understanding although so many things are different from what I taught. Since there’s a good chance you can’t grab me after basketball practice or talk to me in line at the coffee shop, I wanted to answer any questions you might be asking. Even if you don’t have a preschooler, a lot of people who ask are simply curious about how the face of education is changing.  And I’m always willing to talk because I find this new educational direction so exciting and valuable to society as a whole! Just keep in mind that these are the answers I give for our school. Each program develops uniquely.

What if I don’t speak the language? How do I help them?

Most parents at the school don’t speak the language. The teachers know this and are counting on the English reinforcement at home. Unlike a bilingual classroom that teaches kids in their native language until they are ready to learn in English, students are taught in a way that helps them learn the second language. Teachers do not expect their students to understand in the beginning. The whole first month is spent learning basic classroom language. Similarly, teachers know you won’t be able to help them with the language. For kindergarteners, teachers send instructions in English along with homework. As time goes on, they expect kids to be able to do it themselves. If they can’t, teachers need to know that, too. However, you’d be surprised how much you can help your student think through a question without completely understanding the language.

If they spend all their time on language, do they learn everything they should?

Amazingly, the test scores for our school exceed almost all the others in surrounding districts. Tests don’t show everything, though. These students learn from the same requirements as traditional schools and are expected to be at standard in all subjects. One exception might be English reading, which can be delayed slightly by vocabulary and phonetic experience. It can take longer to read English because they don’t learn it at school. That doesn’t mean their reading is low. Students read at grade level in their language of learning and then transfer the knowledge. I should note that this is completely different for the Mandarin program. Because it uses symbols, a system separate from our phonetic alphabet that cannot be transferred, students split their time with English instruction.

Is my kid going to be able to handle this type of program? Does he/she need any special preparation?

Of course, you know your child best but, for the most part, all of the same quirks, personalities, and learning styles show up in these programs. Like any good school, they can adapt to the needs and learning styles of the kid. Students do not need anything special beforehand. That being said, we all know it’s good to be aware of our children’s individual make-up. Because my son seemed a little more hesitant to learn Spanish, we enrolled him in a bilingual preschool to prepare him for another language spoken by the teacher. He left with a few extra vocabulary words, but most importantly, more comfortable with this type of classroom setting.

How bilingual will they be?

The short answer is – Very. Every child and situation varies but you can be sure your student will read, write, and speak whatever language they study. Some parents put a lot of effort into providing extra exposure to their kids with summer camps, international students, or tutoring. Those kids obviously surpass the others in accuracy and comfort. But it isn’t necessary to achieve fluency. Because I’m a firm believer in educational downtime, my kids don’t do any summer language programs and my daughter, in her fifth year of the program, hangs out and talks with her non-English speaking cousins with no hesitation.

Whether you’re considering an immersion program for your child or just learning something new about schools, this is an exciting development in education. Students will be able to navigate other cultures with the same comfort and fluency they feel in English. As the world starts to feel smaller and smaller, they will be uniquely qualified to jump in and make a difference on a global scale. Even for those who can’t attend these specialized schools, the growing value of and openness to biculturalism and bilingualism will positively affect our national outlook.