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LA Unified dual-language classes for early learners tap into their elastic brains

Hillary Erlich, dual-language transitional kindergarten teacher, instructs her L.A. Unified preschoolers in both English and Spanish at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista. Bonnie Petrie/KPCC

Two Los Angeles Unified School District schools are serving as models for a planned expansion of the district's dual-language classes for transitional kindergarteners in the next school year that would take advantage of the pliable brains of young learners.

At Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista, class instructor Hillary Erlich teaches four-year-olds who are learning their letters, numbers, and colors like other preschoolers, but they're doing so in English and Spanish.

A third of Erlich's 24 students are primarily Spanish speakers, and the rest have another dominant language, usually English. 

"In the beginning, it’s a little confusing for them," said Erlich. "Because they're only four when they start, in the very beginning of the year, there's a lot of translating, and then gradually, it's less English, and almost all Spanish."

Three of the preschoolers in her class help illustrate the varying levels of language proficiency that Erlich sees at the beginning of the school year. Isabelle spoke mostly Spanish, Ariana was already bilingual in Spanish and English, and Leia had some proficiency in English and Mandarin.

All three of the students have made significant progress since the beginning of the school year, Erlich said. Isabelle's English has improved, Ariana has strengthened her skills in both languages, and Leia has expanded her understanding of English and Mandarin to now include Spanish. She said Leia can now answer questions in Spanish.

"She is amazing," Erlich said.

The benefits of teaching a second language in preschool are twofold, according to Grand View Boulevard Principal Alfredo Ortiz. "One, they’re getting exposed to school. They’re getting acclimated to the school setting, but secondly ... they’re starting right off the bat with language instruction," he said.

Ortiz believes it is never too early to teach language to children. "Research has show the younger they are, the more elastic their brains are, the more capable they are of learning a second language."

In Koreatown, Wilton Place Elementary is home to one of the district’s dual-language program for kindergarten students. There are two options: one is taught in English and Spanish, the other is taught in English and Korean.

The school's principal, Jung Hae Kim, said dual-language kindergarten offers added benefits to children of immigrants. The program allows them to build on the dominant languages of their families while learning English, becoming bilingual and biliterate.

But it's not always an easy sell. Kim said some parents are reluctant to place their children in the dual-language classes because they want their children to learn English first.

"Rather than really treasuring and maintaining [their own] language, they want their children to learn English so they can be successful," Kim said. "But we know, as educators, they need to have a good foundation of language skills. So build on that, and also have English."

Science is on the side of teachers advocating second languages for early learners.

Dr. Judith Kroll, a psychology professor at University of California, Riverside, studies the impact of language learning on cognition. She said bilingualism has dramatic consequences for the structure and function of the brain.

"We see increased flexibility in the area of memory skills, in the area of what psychologists call executive function," she said. Executive functioning includes the ability to make decisions, filtering distractions, prioritizing tasks, setting and achieving goals, and controlling impulses.

Kroll said there is also emerging research that suggests bilingualism has an enduring impact on brain function, and may even delay the onset of Alzheimer's by up to five years.

L.A. Unified wants to add at least six more dual-language transitional kindergartens across the district this fall. District spokeswoman Barbara Jones said the locations of the programs are still under discussion, but the district estimates it will have room for between 144 and 192 students.

Older students can already spend at least half their day learning in a language other than English at 87 district elementary, middle and high schools.