Talking language immersion schooling with U of M

Diane Tidek

This time of year, parents and guardians across Minnesota are beginning the process of deciding which school to send their children to next fall. Among the growing number of choices are language immersion education programs where students learn the standard school curriculum through a second, foreign, heritage or indigenous language and English. With about 70 immersion and dual language programs in Minnesota — about a third of which began in the last decade — more parents are choosing this approach to schooling.  

Diane J. Tedick with the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development explains what dual language and immersion education is, what parents need to know in order to make decisions for their children and how research shows benefits that go beyond knowing another language.

Q: What is language immersion education?
Prof. Tedick: Language immersion education is a school-based program in which students learn the standard school curriculum through a second, foreign, heritage or indigenous language. They also learn some subjects in English. At least half the curriculum must be taught in the second language in order for it to be considered an immersion program.

There are four different types of language immersion programs: 

  • foreign language immersion for children who speak English at home;
  • two-way or dual language programs serve both English speakers and speakers of the partner/minority language (e.g., Spanish); 
  • developmental bilingual programs target children who speak a non-English language at home, such as Spanish;
  • indigenous immersion programs strive to revitalize endangered Native languages, such as Dakota and Ojibwe. 

Q: What are the benefits of language immersion education?
Prof. Tedick: When students communicate in two or more languages, their lives are personally enriched as they develop new perspectives and come to understand cultural nuances. Having a high level of bilingualism and biliteracy can also improve an individual’s competitiveness in the job market and open up new career possibilities. Some research also points to important cognitive benefits associated with bilingualism. It's hypothesized that the greater the level of bilingualism attained, the greater the cognitive benefits.

An added benefit for students who speak a non-English language and children with indigenous ancestry is the development of positive identities with their home or Native cultures and the majority culture. Research affirms that they do as well as or better academically than peers who are schooled only through English. They are more likely to stay in school and pursue higher education. Knowing their home or ancestral language well allows them to maintain strong connections to families and communities, which, in turn, promotes a sense of well-being and self-esteem. 

Q: Do students fall behind in English, reading, writing and other subjects if they’re taught in a different language?
Prof. Tedick:
We have over five decades of research in the U.S., Canada and other international contexts confirming that immersion students do as well as or better on standardized academic achievement tests than peers who are only schooled in one language. In the U.S., these tests are administered in English. English-speaking students in highly intensive programs that provide 90-100 percent of instruction in the non-English language during the early years may experience a lag in English language arts initially. However, that lag is temporary; once English is formally introduced into the curriculum, the lag disappears. 

Research also shows students whose home language is not English catch up academically to their English-speaking peers typically by grade 5 or 6. For non-native English speakers, having the opportunity to learn in their home language is critical when it comes to their academic success, as well as their proficiency and literacy development in English in the long run. This is the same case for students who have indigenous ancestry. Parents, program administrators, education officials and policymakers should understand that delays at the outset are typical. However, these delays will not affect long-term learning. On the contrary, the longer these students are in the program, the better they do academically in English.

Q: Are there any challenges associated with immersion education?
Prof. Tedick: One of the greatest challenges is having students reach high levels of bilingualism and biliteracy, especially in U.S. programs, as English surrounds us and has become a global language. Although many students develop the ability to communicate in the non-English language with a high degree of confidence and develop near-native capacity to understand and read in most languages, it’s not true of all languages. For example, we’re finding it’s more challenging for immersion students to develop Mandarin literacy skills. 

Research shows that immersion students struggle at times with grammar and vocabulary in their second language. They also may have difficulty with sociolinguistic appropriateness (i.e., interacting in socially and culturally appropriate ways) while communicating in their second language. There needs to be significant focus on language development in immersion and dual language programs. Other challenges include finding highly proficient and qualified teachers — especially those who have the unique knowledge and teaching skills that are needed for immersion. Our programs at the University of Minnesota are specifically designed to train teachers for language immersion classrooms to meet the growing need for qualified teachers.

Q: What resources and support are available for parents interested in learning more about immersion opportunities?
Prof. Tedick: Minnesota boasts dozens of preK–12 immersion and dual language programs. The University of Minnesota is fortunate to have the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA). CARLA’s website provides a wealth of resources on immersion education for interested parents and other stakeholders. There is a section specifically devoted to family/parent education. It provides an online repository of useful resources for families who wish to deepen their understanding of immersion and dual language education. Another valuable resource is the website of the non-profit organization Minnesota Advocates for Immersion Network (MAIN). MAIN provides a structure for ongoing collaboration among the state’s immersion programs and immersion experts at the University.The website provides a current list of immersion programs available in Minnesota as well as other resources. 

Diane Tedick is a professor of second language education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development. She has worked in the field of dual language and immersion education for nearly 40 years as a teacher, researcher and teacher educator. Her research interests include immersion student language development and dual language and immersion education teacher development.


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