Will Utah's immersion language programs grow or stagnate?

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has a national reputation as a leader in language immersion programs. But that reputation could be in jeopardy as lawmakers consider funding for school language programs.

While the state has goals to greatly expand these programs to help thousands of students become bilingual, lawmakers may not provide the funding, and that has parents disappointed. They don't want lawmakers to take away such an important opportunity for Utah students.

6-year-old Bryson Garland will learn French at school in the Fall, if his elementary school in Park City gets the money it needs to teach the curriculum.

"The demand here for the schools is wait list to get into the program," said Bryson's mother, Melissa Garland. "People are moving into districts to get into the program because parents, I think, recognize the value."

Gardner has been on the front lines fighting for language immersion for the schools in her area because she wants her son to have the "gift of a second language" as soon as possible

Educators point to data showing that the process of learning any language at a young age changes a child's brain.

Educators point to data showing that the process of learning any language at a young age changes a child's brain.

"There is research that children who learn or acquire two languages simultaneously…are sort of stretched in the process, and they are actually better equipped in other cognitive areas because of acquiring two languages," said Johanna Watzinger-Tharp, associate dean for International & Interdisciplinary Programs in the University of Utah's College of Humanities.

School districts are reporting higher test scores because of language immersion education.

Per capita, Utah leads the nation for language immersion schools, according to the State Office of Education. Utah already has 57 language immersion schools but state leaders and educators have a goal to have 100.

23 schools across the state need $800,000 dollars to add the language curriculum. Students would learn Chinese, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, sits on the Legislative Executive Committee. As the Legislature comes to a close tomorrow, he says they're in the final stages of negotiating funds for the language immersion program.

"For economic reasons, understanding different languages is important to be competitive on the world stage," Romero said. "It does have a high priority for a lot of people. So I hope we are able to cover most of if not all of the requests."

If the funding doesn't come through, and some programs do get cut, at least one family will be finding another way to get the immersive dual-language education they want for their children.

"If they pull this program, we'll look for other places to go," Gardland said.

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