How can we USE the pains of language-learning to knit together a high school?


Just when I thought I could put away the topic of teaching foreign language, Elisabeth asks two wonderful questions! The first:

How would new students come into this system? I imagine teaching some subjects, even art, in another language could be quite confusing for new students. High school combats different abilities with different skill levels, but I imagine this would be harder. Especially for high school students, if you expect the ‘growing up with a language’ part is essential. Would the school be more of a ‘everyone stays there since a certain age’ thing? Because that is wonderful! But as someone who matriculated into a school with kids who have gone there for 10 years, I cannot imagine the stress that would’ve been learning a language to fully integrate with student life. I also just think that especially when you get to middle school and high school, your school will be needed by more kids who weren’t aware of it before.

I love the empathy bound up in this. In fact, let's go even further: not just how we can reduce the stress of incoming adolescents to our school (and particularly to our language program), but how can we increase the power of incoming adolescents? 

That is, how can we help incoming high schoolers get into the flow of what our school is doing in a way that's quick and gives them confidence?

The language curriculum could actually help solve that. Maybe.

My notion: that all our high school students take a week-long language-learning boot camp before the regular school year begins. There, they'd make strides in learning the language as adults: no longer absorbing the language's vocabulary and grammar (as that developmental window will have passed), but wrestling with it, and making sense of it intellectually.

It would teach a lot, and would give new students some acquaintance with the language. It would be difficult, and would require people help each other out.

Does this sound like the dull-let's-all-open-our-Spanish-textbooks-and-memorize-verb-charts method that didn't work for us in high school? If so, ack: we definitely don't want that.

My vision of this is still fuzzy, but it's being shaped by a rash of recent books that merge brain science with an adventurous and daring attitude toward learning languages. One of them — Fluent Forever, by Gabriel Wynne — is especially exciting. It's making me suspect that we can do a great job of immersing (dare I say "baptizing"?) new students into the ethos of our school by focusing intently on language learning over a brief period of time.

A week-long language boot camp could help bind new and returning students into an organic tribe. A week-long language boot camp could train in the beautiful basics of brain science. A week-long language boot camp could be really, really fun.

The secret could be merging the language training with group-bonding activities. (I know of other schools that do before-school intensive retreats for their freshmen classes. We could do the same, only with a language-twist.)

Of course, students returning to the school will have language abilities much more advanced than (most) students coming into the school for the first time. This is a potential problem — I wonder if we could turn it into an advantage: part of the task of returning students could be to help the newcomers get a grasp on the language.

New students' first experience of the school could be one of getting support from other students.

I don't want to be Pollyannaish about this. It'll be hard to span the chasm in student abilities — some will know none of the language; other will know lots. And I don't want to blithely imagine that all our students will be preternaturally friendly. Whatever anti-bullying measures we take, whatever culture-of-kindness programs we institute, our students will still be human beings.

But it seems like a real possibility to use the gap as a stimulus to community-building. We could turn this difficulty into something wonderful.

Elisabeth asks a second question:

Also, it seems like the school as a whole would learn a singular language together (or 2+ time permitting). Do you see the group learning together as important? For instance, would it be detrimental for half of the kids to learn German while the other half learns Korean?

Another great question! Some thoughts:

First, there's something about everyone in the school learning the same language that I like, a lot. Languages evolved to communicate with other people: the more people who speak the language, the more useful learning it becomes! The more people who speak it, the more people that can help you.

How cool would it be to drop a random Mandarin proverb into a science class, or a math class? Imagine a student realizing they just mastered a concept that had stood in their way for weeks, and casually referencing: "shú néng shēng qiǎo!" ("Experience can give way to skill!") And then the class chuckles knowingly, the teacher included.

(A topic that Kristin and I are exploring: to what extent should teachers learn whatever language the students are learning?)

Second, since our first school will at least start small (and may never get particularly large), it won't be possible for us to financially support multiple language programs.

On the other hand, obviously something is lost by organizing the school around a single foreign language. Students are denied choice. (Though, if they can learn in high school the fine art of learning any language relatively quickly, they can turn their studies into a new opportunity.)

Thanks for the questions, Elisabeth!

I'll be taking the rest of the week off of my scheduled posting. Christmas, and all — but I'll also be taking this break to remake the website, and make it into, well, a website: not just a blog. We've got enough ideas on here that it's possible to summarize them, giving an overview of what we're planning to do.

Thanks for the questions, Elisabeth!

(Note: the image above is from Gabriel Wynne's website, If you're interested in learning another language, you owe it to yourself to snoop around there for a few minutes.)

Are there trade-offs to learning a language?


I've always been a little embarrassed when I meet Europeans who can speak three or more languages. Jared Diamond — himself a polyglot — had language on his mind when he sat around a campfire in New Guinea some years ago. He asked the twenty men who were there how many languages they each spoke.

Five was the lowest number. Several spoke between eight and twelve. The winner spoke fifteen.

Now I feel more embarrassed.

Diamond is quick to answer a question you may be asking: yes, these were separate languages, not just dialects. Some, in fact, were from different language families — as far removed from one another as an Indo-European language (think English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, and German) is from an Afro-Asiatic language (think Arabic, Hebrew, and ancient Egyptian).

Brilliance in many languages — not just the two or three that modern Europeans learn in school — may be the natural state of Homo sapiens. The comprehensive studies on this have yet to be done, Diamond acknowledges, but the evidence that we have suggests monolingualism is an outlier, a fall from grace brought about by the Agricultural Revolution. Compared to our nonliterate hunter-gatherer ancestors, we may be linguistic idiots.

There's no reason that this norm of multiple-language-mastery can't be ours again. And if we can work with human nature we may be able to have this more easily than do those (still sort of awe-inspiring!) Europeans who learn two or three languages in school.

Instead of teaching languages, we can teach in languages. Instead of starting in adolescence, we can start in primary school.

What's the trade-off?

But what's the trade-off? What are we losing, if we teach in other languages?

Are we displacing content knowledge? Are we displacing English proficiency?

Mark asks, in a comment from last week:

...if you only learn math in Spanish, how well will you solve math problems that are presented in English? As you know, when you always learn something in one very specific context, it can be hard to retrieve and apply that knowledge in a different context.

That is, might math suffer for having been learned in a foreign language?

This is an empirical question: data could tell us this one way or the other. And since I don't have access to these studies, I won't make any firm claims. If anyone knows of any data on this — or has any anecdotal evidence one way or the other — could you share it with us?

I suspect that math wouldn't suffer very much. Math is, as I've pointed out before, its own logic, its own "language." To understand a concept in math is to transcend the language that you use for it — to see it as a picture in your mind, or to feel it as something more abstract still.

The terminology of math even links surprisingly well through at least some languages. The German word for sum is Summe. The French word for dividend is dividende. The Spanish word for integer is entero. (Obviously, this would be less useful for a school learning Mandarin, or Arabic, or Hindi — although even those languages have somewhat similar terms for some ideas in math.)

And, of course, the notation for math is (at this point) more or less the same the world over:

2x + 5 = 25 x = 10

is true wherever you go.

There's an odd counterpoint to this. Insofar as learning math is bound up in language, one could hypothesize that wrestling with a problem in another language might actually help students understand it more deeply, precisely because they will have to switch language contexts to do it. That, though, is just a hunch. Good data trumps all hunches!

If there's evidence that math would significantly suffer if learned in a different language, though, then it would make perfect sense to not teach foreign languages through math, but through some other subject — physical education and art were the ones I had suggested before.

Mark continues:

Also, to what extent does mastery of English suffer when a significant chunk of time is spent on another language? You imply that the capacity for language is limitless, but I fear that is a naive idea. If a typical kid learns 300 words by their second birthday, do you really think they can learn 300 words in four different languages by their second birthday for a total of 1200 words? That seems unlikely to me, and I would guess that the total vocabulary capacity of a child remains relatively constant regardless of how many languages he or she learns, implying that you are definitely giving something up when you try to learn more languages. Certainly it is a common complaint among teachers that their students who speak a different language at home really struggle at school.

In other words: does learning words in a foreign language get in the way of learning words in one's first language? Is language learning (at least to some extent) zero-sum?

Here the data is clear and shocking: no.

This finding has had a hard time filtering down to the public, perhaps because it's so counterintuitive. It makes perfect sense that language learning would be zero-sum — why wouldn't it be?

It doesn't help that the first studies that were done (in the U.S., Ireland, and Wales — I'm drawing from Diamond's chapter in The World Until Yesterday again) reported that bilingual students learned the society's dominant language more slowly, and ended up with smaller vocabularies. The studies suffered from a common problem, however: they didn't correct for socioeconomic status. In the three countries, the bilingual children were of lower SES (socioeconomic class) than the monolinguals.

When new studies were run to compare children of similar SES, the differences disappeared. Bilingual and monolingual kids say there first words at (on average) the same age, say their first sentence at the same age, and acquire a 50-word vocabulary at the same age.

After that the studies diverge a little. Some find that monolingual adults have larger vocabularies (up to 10% larger, in their primary language) than do bilingual adults. Other studies find no difference.

How meaningful is a 10% difference in vocabulary? I'm not sure, though I'm willing to guess it's significant. (And I say that as a word nerd who wants to convert the world to his word nerdery!) But Diamond points out something crucial:

it would be misleading to summarize this result by saying, "Monolingual children end up with a slightly larger vocabulary: 3,300 words versus only 3,000 words." Instead, the result is, "Bilingual children end up with a much larger vocabulary: a total of 6,000 words, consisting of 3,000 English words plus 3,000 Chinese words, instead of 3,300 English words and no Chinese words." (World Until Yesterday, p. 387)

Now, it's entirely defensible to prefer 300 extra English words over 3,000 words in a foreign language. But I would (per Monday's postsuggest that the benefits from learning another language are well worth this (potential) trade-off.

Thanks, Mark, for the tough questions! The thinking on this blog is better as a result.

Foreign-language movies

A small potentially-important side point: in last Friday's post I was honest about my concerns that one hour of foreign language per day might not be enough. Well, my friend — the Mandarin teacher who gave me the initial "teach with a foreign language" idea — suggested a potential fix for that.

Could we recommend students watch foreign-language movies and TV as daily or weekly homework?

Some could be videos done in the culture. Others could be quality English-language films superbly dubbed into the target language.

I'm of two minds on this. I haven't gotten my hands on any studies, but I assume that "passively" watching videos in a foreign language isn't nearly as instructive as being around real people speaking it. On the other hand, a now-fluent Mexican friend first learned English by watching The Simpsons! So I'm a little uncertain as to how effective this might be.

Does anyone know of any data on video-watching and foreign-language acquisition? Does anyone have any personal experiences?

Language learning in the upper grades

Finally, what could our language instruction look like when students get to middle and high school?

Though I've railed against learning languages grammar-rules-first, I understand that once you've passed the critical period of naturally learning the language, studying rules of grammar can be helpful. Doing this means treating language as a subject unto itself — our middle and high school might, then, have specific foreign-language classes.

I suspect that these classes, however, might be significantly more advanced than traditional high school foreign language classes. It'll help that our students will already have been using the language for five years! Perhaps our classes will more resemble upper-level college language classes.

And being able to contemplate a language the school already (to some extent) speaks could open up windows to talking about language more abstractly. What are the structural similarities that lie underneath the superficial differences of human language? Can we suss out hints of a Universal Grammar — or is that an illusion?

And what of the much-disputed Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis — the notion that thinking particular thoughts is harder, or even impossible, in certain languages? (If you've read 1984, this is what Orwell is presupposing with "Newspeak.")

These are some of the delightful riddles of linguistics — and they sit near some of the huge questions of how the mind works, and how the human species binds together. Most schools aren't able to wrestle with them, because the students and faculty don't have common experience with more than one language.

Well: ours will! We can go fully into some of the most interesting intellectual mysteries of our day.

Oh, what fun we'll have!

Why learn a foreign language?


The last post, "Don't TEACH a foreign language…" [implied follow-up: teach IN one!] garnered some good questions from smart people. (Thank you, smart people, for reading this blog!) Answers are owed!

Why learn a foreign language?

That a school ought to teach a foreign language will seem, I suspect, self-evident to many of you. I'm embarrassed to say that it wasn't obvious to me, for reasons I still find difficult to fathom.

Maybe I held back from wanting to include a foreign language because I had never seen it done well. I'm the product of foolishly designed language learning: I tried and failed to learn Greek (1 semester), German (2 semesters), and Hebrew (4 semesters). I got 'A's and 'B's in all of the classes. I just couldn't do much of anything with the languages at the end.

Note, too, that my actual instructors were top-notch! The problem wasn't the teachers, it was when and how I was learning. My language learning had departed from the guaranteed-to-work natural method of immersion when young.

I didn't want to inflict this on our students. And now [chuckle] I do, because we can build a system — teaching young kids in a foreign language — that seems likely to work!

But: so what if it does work? Why learn a foreign language?

More human humans

One crucial purpose of our school is to expand people's horizons. Whatever specific geography, socioeconomic class, ethnic heritage, and culture children are born into, there's much to drink from — but it's crucial that children not be confined there. 

I am, and in some ways am always bound to be, a white middle-class Midwesterner. I have no particular problems with that. But I'm not forever stuck only seeing the world through those lenses. I can take on other perspectives. I can expand myself.

But one of the greatest blinders is language. If you can't understand another people's language, you're limited to understanding them in translation (which is forever lossy) and by recourse to texts that have been translated (which are rarer than stories that are not).

I was born into a linguistic community — English — and I've found it quite difficult to move beyond that (see my failed attempts above). This is (and will likely remain) a huge limitation of mine.

If we can succeed at helping entire schools of kids speak and read another language, we can give them a bridge into another linguistic community. They can read non-American newspapers! They can banter on online forums! They can have a bit easier time seeing the world from the eyes of people unlike them, and joining in the conversations that those others are having.

Again, one of the ideas I'm trying to squeeze inside "a school for humans" is the idea that we can help kids become more fully human by connecting them to the rest of human experience.

Learning a second (or third) language is one piece of that.

And if that were the only benefit kids received from learning a foreign language, it'd be enough. But, it turns out, that's not the only benefit.

Improved executive functioning

I think we've all, by this point, heard that learning a language is good for your brain. It's worth delving into how.

Speaking multiple languages doesn't improve many aspects of cognition: it doesn't help long-term memory, doesn't help retrieval speed, doesn't help mood regulation. What speaking a second (or third…) language does help is one crucial cognitive tool: executive functioning.

Executive functioning is a big deal — in many educational psychologists' minds, it's one of the biggest. Executive functioning is what gives you the ability to regulate your thinking. It's one of the elements that distinguishes you the Homo sapiens from you the Australopithecus. Executive functioning is bound up in self-control, concentration, deliberation, mindfulness, working memory, and — goodness gracious — even IQ!

Speaking multiple languages does not improve all of executive functioning. But it is demonstrated to improve one crucial aspect of it: the ability to keep up when rules change, and when information is misleading.

An example is in order! This example comes from Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? The book is, frankly, a must-read: more useful, I think, than either his Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse. Throughout the book Diamond is consumed with demonstrating how the practices of traditional ("hunter-gatherer" as well as early agricultural) societies can inform how we might create a flourishing society. It's a benefit of the book that he does so quite evenhandedly: he neither sentimentalizes nor demeans as "primitive" the practices of traditional societies. In chapter ten, he demonstrates how multilingualism is our heritage, and how monolingualism can hold us back. And he describes the following experiment:

Children sit in front of a computer. Shapes appear on the screen, and the children are instructed to press a specific button when certain shapes come up. Sometimes the shape is a red square, which appears on the left of the screen; sometimes it's a blue square, which appears on the right of the screen.

The keyboard has two buttons: a red button and a blue button. The instructions are simple: when the red square comes up, press the red button, and when the blue square comes up, press the blue button.

Take a moment to picture that.

In one version of the experiment, the location of the buttons matches the location of the shapes: the red button is on the left side; the blue button is on the right side. In this version, monolingual students do just as well as multilingual students.

But in the other version of the experiment, the buttons are swapped: the red button is on the right, and the blue is on the left. There's a mis-match, and it's easy to get confused. "Wait," I can imagine myself asking, "am I supposed to press the button that matches the color of the square, or the location?" In this version, there's irrelevant information that the student has to disregard. They have to exercise their executive functioning.

And in this version, the monolingual students are helpless. They can't keep up with the multilingual students.


Jared Diamond gives a good hypothesis. When I (as a monolingual) hear the word "burro", what goes on in my brain is pretty simple: the word triggers an item in my long-term memory (a donkey). No executive functioning is necessary — the meaning is recalled automatically.

But the sound BUH-ro means other things in different languages. In Italian, for example, it means 'butter'. If I spoke both Italian and English (or, for that matter, Italian and Spanish) and heard the sound BUH-ro, I couldn't automatically link the word to its meaning: I'd need to first check the context. "Hold up — am I listening to English, or to Italian?" Only then could I understand whether you were asking me to, say, pass you the butter for your toast, or hoist a large hoofed mammal across the table.

Which is all to say: knowing multiple languages makes listening harder. It means that you have to consciously be suppressing certain meanings, and channeling others. And in this difficulty is great cognitive training.

But where does this get us? Again: acquiring a second language doesn't improve thinking as a whole, just one aspect of executive functioning: the ability to keep up when rules change, and when information is misleading.

Who cares about that? Well, you probably do. Two explanations are in order.

Bilingualism and Alzheimer's

First, we know that thinking is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. We tell dementia patients to play bridge, or solve Sudoku puzzles, and for good reason. But, as Diamond points out, "whereas even a bridge or Sudoku fanatic can play bridge or solve Sudoku puzzles for only a fraction of a day, bilingual people impose extra exercise on their brain every second of their waking hours" (p. 394).

Maybe the greatest evidence of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, in fact, come from the world of Alzheimer's. We've long known that education level is one of the best predictors of Alzheimer's: those with more education get the disease less. (It's thought — though not quite proven — that this is because people who enjoy thinking tend to stick around longer in formal education.)

A 400-person study in Toronto (I'm pulling this study from Diamond, again) followed folks with a probable diagnosis of Alzheimer's. Bilingual patients ended up developing the disease 4-5 years later than did monolingual patients. Since people tend to get Alzheimer's in the last years of their lives, this means that nearly half the people would not get Alzheimer's before they died. And this was true despite two nearly incredible facts: first, the bilingual patients in the study had less education on average than the monolinguals. Speaking a second language trumped education. Second, that when autopsies were done, it was discovered that the bilingual patients had on average more brain atrophy. Speaking a second language maintains cognitive functioning even when one's brain is shrinking.

Alzheimer's runs in my family: this floored me. But I bring up these findings not for what they say about dementia as much as what they imply about cognitive functioning in general.

Bilingualism and life in a topsy-turvy world

To repeat to the point of inanity: knowing a second language improves one's ability to keep up when rules change, and when information is misleading.

If that describes the 21st century to you — well, we're in agreement! Technological innovation is speeding up — we're creating new things faster than we ever have before. We live in a giant jumble. The rules are constantly changing.

I sometimes hear educators conclude from this that schools should abandon teaching everything they've taught before: we should evacuate our ship of content and embrace constant curricular innovation.

I think that's a dangerous idea, for reasons that I'll post about in the future. But I want to say now that these educators are correct in an important sense: because we live in an information jumble, we do need to re-invent schooling.

Helping improve students' executive functioning seems to be one important piece of that. We want to ground students in the deeply human ideas of the past and present, but we also want to make it easier for them to change course in the future.

That's a brief for why we need to help students keep up when rules change. What about the second half — helping students keep up when information is misleading?

Information is always misleading.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb aphorizes, in his book The Bed of Procrustes:

They think that intelligence is about noticing things that are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns).

Our problem typically isn't that we're not paying attention, it's that we're paying attention to the wrong things. And — apparently — knowing a second language can increase our fundamental ability to fix that.

Multilingualism is good for the mind. And, as a school that takes mental development of all sorts very seriously, bilingualism seems like something we can't afford to pass up.

A note: Mark asked, in his wonderfully-rich comment on the last post, whether the cognitive benefits of a second language accrue only when one learns it "unnaturally," after the critical period closes in adolescence. Happily, the answer from my research seems to be no. All the above studies, for example, were done with people who had learned their second language in childhood. In fact, some of the studies on the benefits of executive functioning and accelerated learning come from infants, who are only able to listen to the languages! If you're interested in more, grab a copy of The World Until Yesterday.

If anyone knows any evidence to the contrary — evidence that the cognitive benefits of second-language-learning come only when learning the language after adolescence — please let me know! (It seems entirely possible that learning a language at different times offers different benefits.)

I'll respond to more comments and questions on Wednesday — keep 'em coming, readers!

Don't TEACH a foreign language...


The traditional way of teaching foreign languages makes no sense. There is such thing as human nature; schools that ignore it pay a price. The big idea of our school-in-the-works is that if we can understand human nature — and if we can re-create education to harness it — we can build a better method of schooling than anyone has ever seen before.

Maybe nowhere is the silliness of traditional schooling better seen than in the way foreign language has been taught. The default model of teaching foreign languages doesn't work. In fact, given what we know about human nature, it can't work.

What I'll dub the "traditional model" of teaching foreign languages has at least two egregious faults —

  1. Foreign language instruction begins in adolescence, after the critical period for language learning has closed.
  2. Foreign language is learned 'academically': as alien words and rules to be committed to memory. That is, language is learned like any other academic subject — e.g. astronomy, or trigonometry, or anatomy.

If we want to bring up adults who are fluent in multiple languages, the traditional model is nonsensical. But there is a natural way to learn foreign languages, and our school can harness it.

The tricky word "natural"

Let me suggest something that will work against my overall point: mistrust anyone who talks about "natural" ways to learn. This includes me, and anyone else speaking for our school!

Truly natural skills don't need to be taught: say, walking, pooping, and talking. The purpose of schools is, on the contrary, to teach unnatural skills.

Reading is unnatural. Math? Unnatural. Science, too! And so on.

Academic subjects aren't natural: that's why we teach them in school.

I realize that these are fightin' words, and indeed I am overstating this point. Really, the natural/unnatural divide is full of problems, not the least of which is that it's the nature of Homo sapiens to do artificial things! It's natural for us to do the unnatural.

And in fact even the most artificial academic skills (like reading) are eked out of our deep nature. Steven Pinker wonderfully quipped, "a group of children is no more likely to invent an alphabet than it is to invent the internal combustion engine," but of course both an internal combustion engine and an alphabet were initially created using our basic cognitive attributes — our skills and our motivations. Otherwise we couldn't have created them at all.

(The fight Catherine and I had in the comment boxes about math learning some months ago demonstrates the silliness of arguing whether something is natural or unnatural. Catherine argued math was natural, because humans do pattern recognition. I argued math was unnatural, because we don't do complex, abstract, quantitative pattern manipulation. We were right.)

But I'm overstating this point to make a larger one: language learning is an exception to this rule. Learning to speak and understand a language is wholly natural. Talking is in the same camp as walking and pooping! Every baby learns to master a foreign language, and they do it without the incentive of grades, and without the intervention of textbooks or intentional teaching at all.

There really is a purely natural way to get kids to learn a foreign language, and that's to merely re-create what already goes on in childhood: enmesh kids, when young, in a community using the language.

That is, the teacher shouldn't say, "Now I'm going to teach you a word that means 'cat'. It's this: 'gato'!" Rather, the teacher should pick up the gato, and say, "Ooh, este es un gato!" (And maybe: "Le gustaría acariciar al gatito bonito!")

Immerse kids in the language. Use language to help do things together. Their brains — their wonderful, human brains — are already equipped to do the rest.

Don't teach a foreign language — teach in a foreign language

All right: how can we do this?

The millennia-tested way to learn a language is to be fully immersed, as a child, in the language. That's outside our scope — it truly takes a village to accomplish this. (A village which the kids only rarely leave.)

The modern academic version of this, of course, is to do full-school-day immersion. And, indeed, the evidence shows plainly that full-immersion classrooms work. But this, too, is outside our scope — at least as we start the first of these schools. We're going to have our hands full finding teachers of a high enough skill set — we can't afford to add "fluency in a foreign language of our choosing" as a hiring requirement.

More recently, other schools have done half-day immersion. The evidence seems to be that they work quite well, too. Again, however, this seems outside our capacities as we start our flagship school.

Eventually, it would be wonderful if we could do full-day immersion. In fact, it might be even more wonderful if we could do dual-half-day immersion, in two foreign languages (say, Mandarin and Spanish, or French and Japanese). There doesn't seem to be an upper limit to how many languages a single mind can master — it would be wonderful if our schools could push the envelope here (or at least the American envelope)!

There's another option, however, between half-day immersion and the bound-to-fail "teach the language explicitly" method: content-based instruction. In content-based instruction, individual academic classes are taught in a foreign language. That is, they don't teach a foreign language — they teach in a foreign language.

The breakthrough moment for me was realizing — thanks to the suggestion of my friend L., a fantastic Mandarin teacher — that we could do this with as little as one hour each day.

And it turns out that some schools are already doing this!

Which course (or courses) should be taught in a foreign language? In principle, any of them could be. In practice, I'll speculate, some classes are better candidates than others — especially those that deal directly with the physical world, where verbs can be acted out and nouns can be picked up.

Our drawing/art class strikes me as a good choice for this. So too our physical education class.

For a different reason, math class strikes me as a potentially good option — the verbiage here is more restricted. John Mighton, creator of the JUMP math curriculum, pointed out in a webinar last week:

Eventually, we want kids to be able to explain what they're doing in words. But at first, that can be distracting. Initially, you can get at the big ideas better with sparse language.

Or, perhaps a combination of multiple classes. We'll need to think more about this as we progress, and look to the specific skill sets of some of our teachers.

What an exciting idea — that all of our students can achieve some level of real skill in a foreign language. And we can accomplish it not by teaching harder, but simply by re-jiggering the curriculum to comport with human nature.

I'll be posting a few more thoughts about this on Monday — if you've ideas, questions, or thoughts, please send them to me!