When Michael Bayrad started first grade last September at Four Corners School in Silver Spring he hardly knew a word that the teacher was saying. Like almost everyone else in his neighborhood, Michael speaks English, but when he walked into the classroom, the teacher Eileen Lorenz was speaking French.
She was making a lot of gestures too, and pointing and drawing and miming.
When her pupils said something in English, Lorenz repeated it in French. The children had to try to say it in Rench before they were granted permission to do what they wanted.
"when Michael wanted to go to the bathrom , he had to ask in French," his mother, Florence Bayard said. "You bet, that was one of the first things he learned to say. Some of the other children didn't learn so quickly, and Michael used to bring them up to the teacher and ask for them."
four Corners is a Montgomery County public school, teaching the regular Montgomery County cirriclum. But for 140 of the 259 students in its first to sixth grades, virtually all of the teaching is done in French. For first graders like Michael that means learning to read and print, add and subtract in French before these basic skills are learned in English.
Although there were strains at first, by this spring the firsts graders in Lorenz's class seemed to be learning and behaving like normal first graders. The only thing different when a reporter visited once that all the children were talking in French -- even to each other when they shouldn't have been talking at all.
Four Corners has been operating its French immersion program since 1974. Not only have the children learned French well, but according to county test reports, its students -- all volunteers -- have learned English, math, and other subjects as well or better than other students at the school who take regular classes in English.
"in this country, I'm afraid, the result of foreign language instruction for most children is to convince them that it's impossible to learn a foreign language," said Four Corners principal Gabriesl Jacobs. "At Four Corners, with very few exceptions, they all learn to read, write, speak, and think in French. Some tell thier teachers they even dream in French, but nobody expects that.
Although immersion programs have been used successfully in Canada for teaching French to students from English-speaking homes, they are operating now in only about 10 school systems in the United States with about 4,ooo students involved, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Yet, the immersion method is at the center of a sharp debate. It is the opposite of the gradual "transition" approach required by the federal government's $157 million a year bilingual education program, students are taught major subjects in their native language, usually Spanish. They learn English on the side, and then are supposed to use it for more and more school work.
According to a major government-financed study, the billingual programs have generaly had poor results in teaching English. Their advocates contend, however, that the relative success of immersion in teaching new languages probably could not be duplicated with the 350,000 children in billingual classes. They note that immersion has attracted mostly middleclass volunteers, such as those at Four Corners, while most children in billingual classes come from low-income homes.
Locally, one school in Chevy Chase, Rock Creek Forest Elementary, started a small Spanish immersion program last year. In order to obtain a federal aid to expand it, the program was changed last fall to include not only English-speakers learning Spanish but also children from Spanish-speaking homes who are learning English.
Ironically, four of the Hispanic children quit the program because their parents said they were having trouble learning both Spanish and English than they had earlier in English alone.
The two teachers and the 38 remaining children seemed enthusiastic, but the "immersion" is much less complete than at Four Corners.
A visitor to Rock Creek Forest this semester heard many of the children speaking English to each other in the Spanish classroom. At Four Corners, on the other hand, children are reprimanded if they speak English in a French classroom after several months. Offenders are sometimes kept in from recess or required to write sentences or poems in French.
"we're not teaching French as an entity in itself," said principal Jacobs.
We're teaching the county curriculum in the French language ... and the child in the program has no choice. He isn't translating. He has to use the language."
The only exceptions to the French-only rule are for classes in art, music, and physical education, which are taught by special teachers who speak English. Otherwise, everything is in French -- even the lessons in Maryland history, required in fourth grade, and the material on English spelling and grammar, which starts in grade three.
"I teach English in French as it would be done in France," said Marie-Cecile Francis, who teaches fifth and sixth grade. It's as if you were teaching French the old-fashioned way. It's so funny to have your own language taught in French."
Even though our first experience in an all-French classroom may be "somewhat traumatic," almost all the children become fluent in a year, Jacobs said. Since the program started, he said less than 5 percent have quit to return to English-language classes.
Despite this success, the immersion program has had some difficulty attracting new students. Any child living in the Four corners attendance zone can enroll in it, but only 25 percent take part, a proportion that has not increased for several years. Indeed, 100 of the 140 children taking French immersion come from outside the Four Corners area, some from as far away as Rockville.
In interviews, many of the Four Corners parents who keep their children out of French immersion said they were worried that the extra job of learning French would slow their children's progress in other subjects. Though Jacobs said this hasn't happened, the doubts persist.
"we wanted our boys to have a traditionl basic beginning," said Mary Meyer, whose two sons are enrolled in the Four Corners' regular English classes. "If they were in French all day, we were afraid they might have trouble catching up in English ... What would happen if we had to move to another school"
Several parents said they worried about what might happen to French immersion children after they leave Four Corners in sixth grade.
So far two classes have graduated and gone on to Sligo Junior High School where they take the regular English-language program plus one special French class a day. Officals at Sligo said the youngsters are doing well. Some of their parents, however, appear dissatisfied that the children aren't doing more work in French.
At Four Corners meanwhile, some minor conflicts have developed between children in the English and French language classes. Last year, teachers said, shoving broke out on the playground, but it was firmly stopped. There is still occasional name-calling, "Frenchies," "French fries," and "French toast" for those in French immersion; "English muffins" for the others.
Most parents whose children are in the regualr program praised Four Corners highly, but several expressed concern that the students had separated themselves so sharply into two language groups. Some said they feared that French immersion was getting more attention from the principal as well as more public acclaim and that the regular program had slipped to second-class status.
"we work very hard to not have the French kids pick on differences. But it's a very normal school phenomenon for kids to pick on differences. But I don't think it's really serious. Yes it's there but we work to minimize it."
Jacobs said that when he makes an announcement to the entire school over the public address system he deliberately speaks only in English. When he speaks to a French classroom alone he speaks in French.
When he sees an English child running in the hallway he stops him in English. When he sees a French immersion child running the command to stop is in French.