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In Any Language, This Program Is Intense : Education: A new Japanese-studies program is modeled after a successful Spanish immersion approach to learning.


CULVER CITY — There's an old joke that goes:

If someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, what do you call someone who speaks one language?

Answer: An American.

Culver City schools will be doing their best to change that perception of Americans this fall when 30 students will take part in a new foreign language immersion program that will put them in a classroom conducted almost entirely in Japanese.

"It will be like going to Japan," said Vera Jashni, assistant superintendent of curriculum for Culver City schools. "Like being dropped off there and having to learn how to communicate, read and listen. . . . That's the idea of immersion--being totally surrounded by the language that you are learning."

The class, which will combine kindergarten, first- and second-grade students, will be taught by Japanese-born Naomi Kawano, from the Torrance Unified School District. She will greet students in Japanese in the morning, and continue speaking Japanese as she teaches lessons in language arts, math and science.

About 40 minutes at the end of the day will be spent on English language arts. Overall, students will spend 90% of their time studying in Japanese and 10% studying in English.

Culver City is starting the Japanese immersion program thanks to a grant from the federal government. The school district will receive about $70,000 a year for three years, which it must match dollar for dollar.

The net effect, however, is that the district will receive extra money because a teacher and other district resources must be supplied for the children in the program one way or another, Jashni said.

The multimillion-dollar federally legislated grant package aims to create model programs in less commonly taught languages that are critical to the United States, said Arleen Burns, consultant for the Language Arts and Foreign Languages Office of the state Department of Education.

Twenty-eight schools competed in categories for elementary and secondary programs in Arabic, Russian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. Thirteen won grants, Burns said.

This is not Culver City's first encounter with what has become a widespread method for teaching foreign languages. In 1971, Culver City became the first school district in the nation to put the immersion concept into practice.

Culver City's Spanish immersion program, now housed at El Rincon Elementary School, went on to become the subject of innumerable UCLA master's theses, doctoral dissertations and stories in professional journals, said Russell Campbell, the UCLA linguistics professor who presented the idea to the district.

Michelle Barmazel, 26, started Spanish immersion as a kindergartner at Linwood E. Howe School the first year of the program. Neither of her parents speak a foreign language.

"I was fluent by the third grade," she said. "Spanish is a native language for me. I don't have to translate 'a shoe is zapato. ' I look at the thing and think 'zapato.' "

Barmazel admits her Spanish got a little rusty while she was learning French during two years of study in Bordeaux and Paris. But she said it's nothing a little practice won't fix.

Jashni hopes the Japanese program will blossom like the Spanish immersion program did. The latter now consists of seven classes and runs through the fifth grade. Additional Spanish classes are offered at Culver City Middle School.

The Japanese immersion program will be the first in California, and one of eight in the nation, according to Sam Sheppard, project director with the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington.

According to a 1991 survey, the number of school districts with immersion programs has grown to 66, eight of them in California, Sheppard said. The majority are Spanish, followed by French. Other languages include Cantonese, Dutch, Hawaiian and Dakota, a Sioux language.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has a Spanish immersion program at Edison Elementary School. It continues with sixth and seventh grade at John Adams Middle School, but students must enter the program at the kindergarten or first-grade level.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has a Spanish immersion program at four elementary schools, including Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista.

Los Angeles Unified also won a federal grant this year, and plans to offer a Korean immersion program this fall at Cahuenga Elementary School in Koreatown, district sources said.

Campbell said that parents needn't worry about their child's English skills suffering from being in a foreign-language immersion program. "Studies have shown again and again that English doesn't suffer," he said.

Children in total immersion programs, which teach exclusively in the foreign language, may score slightly below average in standardized English reading tests at first, he said. But by the third year, as time spent on English grammar and spelling increases, they catch up. Beyond fourth grade, immersion children consistently score above average.

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