The evidence is overwhelming: Being bilingual in today’s world is a huge advantage. Studies have consistently revealed the “brain benefits” of bilingual education. A 2016 NPR article contains this quote: ‘“bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime,’ in the words of Gigi Luk, an associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.”
The article goes on to cite varied studies that found bilingual education boosts the skill of “code switching” (a subset of executive function); leads to increased empathy, as kids have to learn to follow social cues to know which language to use; accelerates English reading skills; enhances school performance and engagement; teaches the value of diversity; and—eventually—provides protection against cognitive decline and dementia.
Then there’s the very practical side. In a blog called, “The Benefits of Bilingualism In Business,” organization United Language Group cites advantages in job applications, business travel and networking, tapping into growing client pools in places such as South America and China, and higher salaries for those who are bilingual.
Other studies support the idea that starting bilingual education as early as possible is ideal. And, fortunately for East Bay parents, there are a number of schools offering bilingual immersion education, some including instruction for children as young as pre-K. The following are some options.
Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley
Founded in 1977 by parents who wanted their children to speak French as well as English, Ecole Bilingue’s success is the result of several factors, according to head of school Sebastien Robert.
“First, the program itself, which is based on the French National Curriculum.” Growing out of the Enlightenment period, this curriculum emphasizes high standards, critical thinking “and is cross-project based,” Robert explained. Second, the school hires the best teachers from France, trained not only in pedagogy, but also in child development. And third, he said, “is that we are a community-based school with a great level of parent involvement.”
Seventy percent of these students do not speak French at home, but the school provides resources and videos for parents, as well as play-based activities in French for younger students. Additionally, through a partnership with the Alliance Francais, parents can learn French themselves, if they choose.
Ecole Bilingue offers three learning tracks: core program Section Internationale Americaine, which begins at pre-K, and includes all subject matter; the Accelerated French program, which allows students enrolling later than pre-K to take two hours per day of French immersion classes, with the goal of rejoining the core program within two years; and a Middle School International Track, in which there is more instruction in English and very small class sizes.
Students in all three tracks become “not just bilingual, but bicultural,” said Robert. “They are able to step back and look at concepts and perspectives, and question them.”
And every child is ready for a second language, he said, noting that Ecole Bilingue is able to accommodate different learning styles and abilities. He suggested that interested parents attend a pre-K class to “see how the students are thriving.”
The school is committed to making its programs affordable. “Fifteen percent of our budget is devoted to tuition assistance, and 40% of our students receive assistance,” Robert said.
By 2050, the school’s website states, French will be the second-most-spoken language in the world. Speaking French will have big benefits, as French-speaking countries in Africa, for example, become more prominent on the world stage. “In the 21st century, we are looking at what students need to become global citizens,” said Robert.
Escuela Bilingüe Internacional
Established in 2006 by a group of parents and professional educators, Escuela Bilingüe Internacional (EBI) was created because, at the time, there were no Spanish-English independent schools in the Bay Area, and no Spanish-English bilingual programs beyond the 5th grade.
The founders determined to build a dual-immersion school that would serve students from pre-K through 8th grade. The goal was to create a program based on the best teaching and learning practices from around the world, which would prepare children in both English and Spanish for the highest academic levels. Also vital were the cognitive, social and cultural benefits of multilingualism.
Since the school’s founding in Oakland, it has expanded to include a second campus in Emeryville.
Escuela Bilingüe Internacional uses the International Baccalaureate (IB) coordinated curriculum programmes, including the IB Primary Years Programme, for students in pre-K to 5th grade, and the IB Middle Years Programme, for students in grades 6 to 8. Schools using these programmes must be officially authorized by the International Baccalaureate in order to teach the IB programmes and to be recognized as an IB World school.
The focus of IB programmes is “an integrated continuum of international education… [encouraging] both personal and academic achievement by challenging students to excel in their studies as well as in their personal development,” according to EBI materials.
In the pre-K program, faculty use only Spanish in the classroom. Non-Spanish-speaking students are supported with signs, gestures, facial expressions and drawings to facilitate their understanding and language acquisition. But, children can respond in their mother tongue while being encouraged to use Spanish more frequently as they progress. EBI’s Spanish immersion program helps native Spanish-speaking children, reinforcing and developing their home language.
EBI also offers the Aventura Extended Day Program, school-year camps and after-school enrichment programs. Tuition assistance is available for families that qualify.
School materials state the overall mission: “It is our belief that international mindedness helps people become their best selves and responsible members of their local and global communities. We strive to instill an international mindset in our students that promotes empathy, encourages an understanding of the complexity and value of diversity, and supports them in recognizing that we are all connected.”
Pacific Rim International School (PRINTS)
The Montessori school, founded in 1989 as a dual-immersion Mandarin-English program, PRINTS relocated to its Emeryville campus in 1995. Other milestones include the addition of a Japanese-English program, the 2005 addition of an Upper School program, the founding of a second campus in San Mateo and the addition, at that campus, of a Spanish-English program. PRINTS also offers a program for infants, “Nido.”
Like all accredited Montessori schools, PRINTS operates on the principles developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, including her description of the “four planes of development.” In the classroom, according to PRINTS materials, there are mixed-age groups; children choose activities on their own; activities are presented to children individually or in small groups, in accordance with each child’s needs and learning style; and “silence is a reflection of concentration, peace, and order. The environment is calm.”
Other key components of the Montessori method of instruction include individualized lessons; interconnected subjects; uninterrupted blocks of time for students to focus on their work, both individual and group work; and the ability of students to work at their own pace.
PRINTS leadership believe this can contribute to an ideal atmosphere for learning a second language. “Parents frequently remark on how our school environment shifts a child’s worldview,” state school materials. “Firstly, children develop a curiosity and passion for both the second language and the culture in which it is spoken; secondly, children gain the ability to think and communicate in two (or more) languages. Within this environment, bilingualism, along with a genuine understanding and appreciation of internationalism are achieved with ease.”
Financial assistance is available to students in the Elementary and Upper School programs.
Shu Ren International School
Deron Marvin, co-head at Shu Ren International School, pointed to the use of the International Baccalaureate (IB) coordinated curriculum programmes as one aspect that makes Shu Ren stand out to parents seeking Mandarin-Chinese bilingual education for their pre-K and elementary-age children.
“Many families in this area [Berkeley] are culturally mixed. They want their children to not only be familiar with Mandarin, but to get in touch with their cultural heritage,” Marvin said.
Noting that as many of 80% of Shu Ren parents speak English as their first language, and do not speak Mandarin at home, he explained that the school provides multiple events throughout the year, with the goal of “getting parents on campus as much as possible.”
Shu Ren offers a Parent Community Group, “a distributive leadership model” that includes parents, teachers and staff. The group supports the school as room parents; workshop facilitators; enrichment, event and fundraising support; and field trip chaperones. For example, in January, the group helps produce the Annual Winter Market, in which items produced by students in art classes are sold, and proceeds donated to the Alameda County Food Bank.
Other added benefits offered by the school include a capstone trip for Grade 5 to a Mandarin-speaking country, said Marvin, as well as a “robust enrichment program,” plus summer camps, some of which are designed for kids exploring if bilingual immersion is right for them. Marvin again emphasized the connection between Shu Ren’s mission and the goals of the International Baccalaureate curriculum. “Our mission is aligned with IB’s goal of creating a more peaceful world,” he said.
Although he was in full agreement with the idea that bilingualism is a significant advantage both today and in the future, aiding college admission as well as career prospects, in his view, the more important element is life enrichment.
“It’s true China is center stage right now,” he said. “But for most of our parents, it’s much more about reconnecting their kids to their cultural heritage.”
Parents’ testimonials on the website indicate their satisfaction with the school’s approach.
“From Day 1, our son loved Shu Ren,” wrote one. [He] started mid-year into Pre-K4, enjoyed their fun summer programs and is now loving Kindergarten. Shu Ren offers a focused, inclusive and caring educational program with patient, communicative and experienced IB teachers. Mandarin Immersion is what drew us to Shu Ren, but IB and the teachers are what’s really keeping us here.”
Like the other schools listed above, Shu Ren offers tuition aid/financial assistance to families that qualify. The school recently opened another campus in San Jose. “We’re so happy to have so many families who are interested in what we offer,” Marvin said. “Our growth is a reflection of that.”
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story’s online version contains corrections made on 1/6/2023, per Ecole Bilingue.]