2. How long does it usually take students to start understanding and then start speaking in their second language? Does the rate vary by native language and program model?

The answer to this question depends on a number of factors. First, individual student factors such as age, personality, and gender influence the rate of second language acquisition. Early research on foreign language immersion found that a student’s positive attitude and motivation contribute to the achievement of additive bilingualism (Gardner & Lambert, 1972, Lambert & Tucker, 1972). Second, instructional factors such as program model and the quality of the instructional environment also play a role in second language acquisition. Studies have shown that while the English language and literacy skills of native Spanish speakers in 90/10 programs are initially lower than those of native Spanish speakers in 50/50 programs, there are no differences between the two groups by the upper elementary or secondary grades. Conversely, for native English speakers, Spanish language and literacy skills of students in 90/10 programs are consistently higher than those of students in 50/50 programs at all grade levels (Lindholm-Leary & Howard, in press; Lindholm-Leary, 2001). Finally, sociocultural factors such as the language of the wider society and the extent to which each of the languages of instruction is valued and used in the community also play a role in second language acquisition. For more in depth resources on second language acquisition, see the annotated bibliography of materials for classroom instruction.

In School District 54 in Schaumburg, IL, students start understanding classroom routines and simple phrases in their second language a few weeks after starting in the 50/50 dual language program. However, the rate of comprehension seems to vary between the two language groups. The majority of the English language learners have little difficulty understanding most of what is said to them in English by the end of first grade or the beginning of second grade. For children who are learning Spanish or Japanese, listening comprehension skills take longer. By the end of second grade or the beginning of third, these students understand much of what is said as long as it concerns a concrete topic. They often have difficulty if the speaker changes the topic or discusses something abstract.

For English language learners, language production doesn’t seem to lag far behind listening comprehension. In first grade most of the students respond in English when spoken to in English. Their vocabulary and knowledge of English sentence structure may be limited, but students seldom respond in Spanish when spoken to in English. For native English speakers, however, speaking proficiency generally takes longer to develop. They often don’t respond in Spanish or Japanese when spoken to in those languages during first grade, unless specifically prompted to do so. They are also more likely to respond in the partner language if the question requires only a single word answer or uses a sentence pattern they have reviewed frequently. By the end of second grade, students use their second language more often to answer in class, but even in third grade some students will only speak in Spanish or Japanese when specifically prompted or reminded.

In Key’s 50/50 program in Arlington, VA, students begin to show comprehension of their second language within the first week of instruction. They are exposed to basic vocabulary and commands in their second language from the first day they arrive in school. The teacher models and repeats simple commands such as “Sit down,” “Get up,” and “Raise your hand,” and asks the students to “act something out” or repeat what she does. By observing the teacher modeling the behavior and by seeing their peers respond to their teacher’s commands, students are provided with a context for the new words they are learning.

Because the teacher repeats the same commands and follows a daily routine consistently, some students begin to show an understanding of these commands as early as the first week in the program. Two or three weeks after starting the program, students answer simple questions such as “How are you?” and “What day of the week is it?” with one word answers, such as “Fine” and “Monday.” Initially students provide choral responses (whole group responses). Later, teachers direct questions to individual students. Many times the native speakers of the language of instruction volunteer the answer if a student doesn’t know how to reply. By repeating what another student says, the second language learner begins to internalize vocabulary and language structures. By the second year in the program, most students can express themselves in full (if not totally correct) sentences.