MILTON, MASS. — At first glance, Lyse Stevens's class seems like an ordinary group of good-natured fourth-graders in a public school.
But if you ask, "May I please have a pencil?" you'll get a quizzical look.
Here, it's, "Avez-vous un crayon, s'il vous plat?"
This is not just any French lesson for nine-year-olds. The Gallic language is the only means of communication at this elementary school.
Total-immersion schools take the view that when it comes to learning language, you can't start too early. The approach holds that students will become naturally bilingual if they are taught the elementary-school curriculum in a target language - be it French, Spanish, Japanese, or German - and English is phased in as just one subject of the curriculum.
Here at the Cunningham Elementary School in Milton, Mass., students in Grades 1 and 2 are taught only in French. In Grades 3 and 4, they are taught half the time in French and half in English. In Grades 5 and 6, it's 30 percent French, 70 percent English.
"The real amazing part is in the third grade," says principal Mary Gormley. "That's when they transfer skills of learning French to English."
At first, third-grade students have English grammar and spelling hurdles to overcome - they may apply French rules, for example - but they get "up to snuff" rapidly, teachers report.
The first public-school immersion program in the US was founded in 1971 in Culver City, Calif., with a Spanish curriculum. Today, there are more than 180 programs across the country, and immersion is considered the best model for teaching language proficiency.
"During the last 10 years, immersion schools have flourished," says Martha Abbott, foreign-language coordinator for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools, which have "partial immersion" in 13 of 140 elementary schools. "This is a program parents are really asking for."
"It's a challenging program to implement, and the teachers work really hard," says Ms. Abbott, "but you have to ask 'Is our school meeting the needs of kids for the future?' Few people would argue the importance of language."
Critics of immersion question its value, and, more often, the process. Some raise concerns over possible "confusion" between two languages and wonder how students could learn as much in a foreign language as in their own.
Yet studies have shown that children learn just as much or more as their monolingual peers, save the English catch-up period. "Learningwise, immersion isn't for every child," Abbott says, but "it is a rare case that a child just doesn't connect with the foreign language."
For many parents, the nitty-gritty of immersion is difficult to understand at first. Does it work for a five-year-old coming from an English-speaking home to enter a school where all his teachers will be speaking only Japanese? How can he learn math or social studies?
The answer is the combination of skilled teachers and young minds that are developmentally poised to learn. "They're like sponges," says Gracie Burke, director of world languages for Milton public schools.
"I'd love to see every school system do this," Ms. Burke continues. "In the United States, we have been really far behind in teaching languages." The main challenge after elementary school is continuity. Once students get into middle school and high school, curricula need to be more tailored to suit their needs.
Interest in immersion is booming, in part because the value of such programs goes beyond fluency, say supporters. Successful programs cite evidence that suggests immersion students fare better in creative and higher-order thinking exercises. And in a 1992 study of college-bound seniors, the College Entrance Examination Board reported that students who took four or more years of foreign-language study scored higher on the verbal section of the SAT.
William Moller says he enrolled his son and daughter in the Holliston, Mass., French immersion program because "it opens their eyes to the multicultural diversity of the planet." Learning so early, children master pronunciation. "They also build self-confidence," he says, recalling a trip to Quebec where at a carnival his son translated the rules of one of the games.
Opportunities come in other ways as well. In 1994, the emperor and empress of Japan made their only school visit in the US to the Great Falls (Va.) Elementary School. The children sang "It's a Small World" in Japanese and presented them with gifts. "They told us they were very impressed," Abbott recalls.