Political and business demands are increasingly linking countries across the globe and bringing people of varied backgrounds together. The result has been a greater emphasis on foreign language education, particularly language immersion. Millennials are the first to reap the benefits of this educational shift.
“I think we’re the test generation,” says Isabelle Skoog, a senior at Lawrence University.
Minnesota ranks second out of all states in the number of schools that offer language immersion programs, with a total of 50. With 58 schools, only Utah tops Minnesota’s numbers, according to data gathered by the Center for Applied Linguistics in 2011, the most recent comprehensive record available.
“We’re definitely seeing that learning languages other than English is becoming more of a priority,” says Tara Fortune, the immersion projects coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA). Both in Minnesota and nationally, there has been a “very significant increase in programs whose goals are bilingualism and biliteracy,” she says.
Students are enthusiastic about their experiences. “It was a peculiar and awesome way of learning,” Skoog says of her education at Normandale French Immersion School in Edina, Minn. “We had people from all around the world who were francophones.” Skoog’s parents enrolled her in Normandale’s early immersion program as a way to help retain her family’s French heritage.
Immersion programs in particular have gained momentum and are becoming increasingly popular as a way to connect students of different backgrounds, Fortune says. These programs are growing at a faster rate than other language education models. The formerly popular Foreign Language Experience Program, or “FLEX” model, which exposed students to a variety of different languages before having students select which language to pursue, is becoming overshadowed by immersion.
Chinese, Korean, Arabic, and Portuguese programs are growing quickly. Enrollment in Chinese programs in Minnesota alone grew by 86 percent between 2006 and 2009, from 1,233 students to 5,575 students, according to a 2010 report by the Minnesota Department of Education. Language education is no longer limited to the core three of Spanish, French, and German.
New Emphasis on Language Education
Millennials have grown up in an education system that has been at times indecisive about language education. Tight state budgets often cut these programs at traditional public schools. However, there is also more variety now in the languages students have access to, the age at which parents can enroll their children in a language program, and the methods by which languages are taught.
Language education is becoming increasingly standard as educators, political figures, and businesses see it as a modern competitive advantage. The Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, for example, now requires its students to study abroad. The methods of language learning have also acted to bring in more knowledge about diverse cultures as a way to better communicate on a more empathetic and culturally-sound level.
One popular method is to pair students whose first language is English with native speakers of other languages, like Spanish or Hmong. “We’re seeing a growth in two-way bilingual immersion programs where we’re bringing together kids with distinct cultural and heritage backgrounds,” Fortune says.
The students act as both language and cultural conduits to bridge divides and lead to a better understanding of people who differ from themselves. “When you’re living and functioning in another language, I think that’s one of the most transforming experiences a person can have,” Fortune says.
With growth in the variety of languages taught—immersion and otherwise—millennials and their next-generation counterparts are receiving an education in culture unlike that experienced by older generations.