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US bilingual teachers look cautiously at 'immersion' method

A 20-year-old Canadian method for teaching children a second language is getting some new interest from bilingual educators in the United States. The technique is known as ''total immersion,'' and it evolved as an effort to preserve the French language and culture in English-speaking Canada. Children plunge into a French-only curriculum in the lower grades, then ease into a mixture of classes in French and English later on.

Some educators would like to see this teaching method applied to non-English-speaking children in the US. But proponents of bilingual education have fought hard to obtain laws and funding to support the bilingual concept, and they are hesitant to rock the boat by embracing any form of immersion. They also see the technique as a threat to their own job security.

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Some agree that immersion is an attractive alternative, although not a replacement for bilingual methods. What works for students in Canada's middle-class, English-speaking majority, others warn, may not be as effective here.

''The experience of the Canadians teaches us a lot of things, but we're dealing with minorities (in the US). Their program works as a second language, because their first language is strongly supported in the culture,'' explains Eduardo Hernandez Chavez, director of the Cross Cultural Resource Center in Sacramento.

Mr. Hernandez spoke before educators gathered here last week for the annual convention of the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE).

The Canadian method was outlined at the conference by Fred Genessee, a professor at McGill University in Montreal. In the first year and a half of school, he explained, teachers speak to children only in French for all subjects. The students are encouraged to speak French, but not required to do so until Grades 2-4.

In the upper grades, French and English both are used in the classroom, though not interchangeably. For example, French may be used exclusively to teach math, but English might be used in the art classroom.

The Canadians have found that children involved in total immersion score equally well on achievement tests as their counterparts in other programs, said Sharon Lapkin, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Further, she says, teachers do not correct students on their French grammar in the early years - the idea is to develop fluency and security in the language before perfecting it.

''The first reaction (of some bilingual educators) is that you're giving up the cause if you support immersion,'' said Roger Tom, bilingual education program manager for the San Francisco Unified School District.

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That's because ''total immersion using only English sounds very much like what we had'' prior to bilingual education laws, Mr. Tom explained. These require school districts to offer education to non-English and limited-English speakers in a combination of English and their native tongue.

''But to me what they (Canadians) have is very acceptable,'' Tom added. ''It could be used with any language . . . and that's desirable. Just look at the French-American Bilingual School (a private San Francisco school): Lots of people want their kids there. We (public schools) could teach Cantonese, Spanish , . . . whatever,'' he says. That would mean that English-speaking students, too , could choose to be taught in a foreign language.

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