Before Ethan Christensen entered the first grade, his mom decided to enroll him in a Chinese language academy. Katuska Christensen is from Peru and has passed her native Spanish language down to her children, and she thought it would be great for him to be fluent in three languages.
“I did a full immersion program for English in kindergarten — 100 percent,” she said. “When you’re an immigrant, you value languages.”
Coincidentally, that was the same exact week when former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announced the creation of a dual-language immersion program in the state. Bonus: Canyons District was among the DLI pioneers, with Chinese, Spanish and French being offered.
Fast forward a dozen years, and Ethan was among the first group of DLI students to graduate from high school after completing the entire 12 years of the immersive dual-language curriculum, generally from first grade through junior high, and the ensuing Advanced Language Learning Bridge Program, a University of Utah-sponsored program that allows students to simultaneously earn high school and college credit.
The first graduating DLI class in the state included a total of 77 seniors from Canyons District schools, including a handful that began learning Chinese as first-graders with Christensen at Draper Elementary in fall 2009, CSD’s inaugural school year.
Utah has the largest — and arguably the best — DLI program in the country.
“It was a really cool experience,” Ethan Christensen said.
Though Christensen now jokes about being a guinea pig in the early stages of the DLI program — when details were being sorted out — he was also one of 26 Canyons graduates to earn a Seal of Biliteracy this spring. Students must pass tests to demonstrate their written and oral proficiency in two languages in order to earn the seal.
“It really is about learning about the language and culture that isn’t yours. It allowed us to get a better understanding of that (culture) and expand perspective and makes you more open-minded,” Christensen said. “Encountering diversity tends to do that. I think that’s a very big benefit that I’ve experienced from doing the program — and to gain proficiency in another language.”
Twenty-one of the District’s schools participate in the DLI and Bridge programs, including the five traditional high schools.
Canyons students in the Chinese program begin at Draper, Lone Peak and Ridgecrest elementaries then move on to Draper Park, Indian Hills and Butler middle schools and complete the long-term course at Alta, Brighton or Corner Canyon high schools.
The Spanish program includes five elementary schools: Alta View, Silver Mesa, Midvale, Midvalley and Altara. Then, students can continue DLI studies at Midvale, Mount Jordan and Union middle schools, and two high schools Hillcrest and Jordan.
The French program begins at Butler and Oak Hollow elementaries and then progresses from Butler and Draper Park middle schools and onto Brighton and Corner Canyon high schools.
Michelle Harward, a world language and secondary DLI specialist at CSD who’s from Marseille, France, described the influx of Seal of Biliteracy recipients this spring as being “beautiful.” The DLI program helps prepare students for the Advanced Placement language test and the Bridge classes.
The DLI program has three goals:
- Bilingualism: Gaining high levels of proficiency in English and a second language (Chinese, French or Spanish).
- Biliteracy: Developing listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in two languages.
- Multicultural competence: Understanding different cultures and development of high esteem.
Like Christensen, Harward credits the programs for more than just teaching students how to converse in other languages.
“It teaches our students something else. It opens your mind. It makes you see something different,” Harward said. “It makes you see that what is in one culture is different in the other one, but there’s no right or wrong. It’s just different.”
Canyons’ curriculum guides students through standard-based maps following World Language Core Standards for Proficiency and the Proficiency Guidelines. Proficiency levels in speaking, writing, listening and reading are clearly mapped out for students as they progress from Novice to Intermediate and Advanced subdivided into low, mid and high sublevels.
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Students are eligible to apply online for CSD’s Chinese, French and Spanish Dual Language Immersion programs when they are in kindergarten. The window for accepting applications typically opens the first full week of October and closes the week of Thanksgiving.
If the District receives more applications for a DLI program than the number of available spots, a lottery is held in December. Students who miss the application window can fill out an application and be placed on a waitlist after the lottery.
New students are allowed to begin DLI up until the first day of second grade (Chinese) and the first day back from winter break of second grade (French and Spanish).
Being proficient in communication and cultures is the ultimate goal of the Utah Core, which includes interpersonal, interpretive and presentational communication along with intercultural competencies.
As detailed on its website, the University of Utah partnered with the Utah State Board of Education to offer early college concurrent enrollment credit through the Utah Bridge Program, which focuses on bilingual, biliterate and bicultural citizenship while helping students to reach their potential.
The Christensen family bought into the DLI program from the get-go. Katuska Christensen attended the first orientation 12 years ago and without hesitation said, “We’re in.” Three of Ethan’s younger siblings are following in his footsteps in the Chinese program even though it requires Mom to drive them miles away to their schools.
“You have families that end up doing this program together for many years,” she said. “It becomes like this family.”
In elementary, the Chinese DLI students have two teachers and spend half the day speaking and being taught in each language. In middle school and high school, there are language and culture classes mixed in with required courses and electives. Bridge courses are taught by university professors.
Students also participate in culture-related events such as the Chinese New Year, including performing dances, songs and poetry at an annual assembly, and martial arts. Christensen, who won a state-wide language fair speech competition at BYU, even got to spend two weeks with fellow Bridge students in China thanks to a scholarship. (He also earned a four-week trip, but it was canceled due to COVID-19.)
“That’s not something I’m ever going to forget,” he said of his two weeks at the Beijing Language and Culture University.
Christensen plans on using his language skills in an international business relations career after college. First, though, he will serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Being fluent in three languages, Christensen figured he’d be asked to serve in an area that allowed him to use his Spanish and/or Chinese skills.
He instead will serve in the Ivory Coast — French-speaking.
“I’m excited because I enjoy learning languages and being able to communicate with other people,” Christensen said. “It was very surprising, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
Not surprisingly, Christensen has already begun learning French through a language app. He can now count to at least six in four different languages.