George Lucas Educational Foundation

Ohayo, Portland: Using Foreign Language as a Bridge to Learning

A partial-immersion K-12 Japanese-language program teaches students that it's easy to make friends if you speak the same tongue. Read the article.
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Narrator: The sights and sounds of Japan are part of the fabric of Portland, Oregon, a city with a world class Japanese garden, and a unique public school language program.

Narrator: Here, Students are immersed in Japanese from their first day of kindergarten.

Deanne: The whole idea of an immersion education is that you are surrounded in the language. You are not teaching the language independent from actual content or real life situation.

Deanne: I think a lot of people in our country have had high school language and it's a textbook, a reading and writing kind of thing, but immersion means you're in a situation where you have to pay attention to the language in order to be able to do the activity that's going on.

Deanne: Just through routine and copying the teacher, they start developing a song vocabulary and other things like that, that are part of their real kindergarten world.

Amy: First day it's, what's going on? And then after that, it's well, this is the way school is. The teacher speaks in a new language, and I try to figure it out.

Amy: They are able to use language in all the things they do in school, and when they're washing their hands, when they're drawing on paper, when they're trying to work out a problem with a friend, any of these situations can be situations in which we can insert language and practice language.

They don't even realize how special it is.

Narrator: In Richmond Elementary School's Japanese Magnet Program, students follow the Oregon State Curriculum. They study their core subjects in Japanese for half the day, and English for the other half.

Narrator: In middle school, they use Japanese for a third of their day, and in high school, Japanese is offered as an advanced language class.

Narrator: Michael Bacon, who has been teaching in the program for more than a decade, sees students benefiting in many ways.

Michael: Their performance in, sort of cognitive assessments are higher, their ability to see from multiple perspectives.

Michael: Their academic performance is higher on standardized testing, their ability to pick up a third and a fourth language is higher. That seems to play out in all the research.

Narrator: At Richmond Elementary, students can take after school classes in martial arts like karate, and kendo. They can also practice calligraphy, which gives them another way to learn the language and helps children with different learning styles.

Denise: English is very difficult for her to write. The fact of the matter is, Kanji, and Hiragana and Katakana are not difficult for her to write. And I'm not even sure why this is, except that having those two ways to come at one subject, has been a big help to her. So learning to write a new language was very, very beneficial in what it will do for your brain structure. It's a very fascinating thing to see how easily children can pick that up.

Narrator: Computers can also help students write in Japanese. These fourth graders use a program that lets them from Japanese characters by typing combinations of English letters.

Narrator: They are composing multimedia self portraits to share with e-mail pen pals in Japan.

Atsuko: Some kids are having a difficulty actually write in Japanese. It's because it's complicated language. But since the computers, they're used to it at home, too, they're playing the games, and they love it, and that boost up their interest, so then this really helps developing their literacy skills.

Teacher: Did anybody carve a pumpkin?

All: Yes.

Narrator: In fifth grade cultural exchange, Japanese students from a school near Tokyo visit Portland.

Teacher: What is the best thing about your home state?

Student: If you plant a seed, it will grow into a tree, and you will get more persimmon than you can ever eat.

Narrator: The visiting students make presentations in English at the school, and stay with families of fifth graders.

Aimee: I'm incredibly happy that I started my children in this program. My middle child, Mason, who's in fifth grade, who we have the home stay student for. He's shy, he doesn't talk much. I wasn't actually sure how much Japanese he knew. When Uta came, I realized he knew a lot of Japanese.

Aimee: He is speaking to him in Japanese, they've forged a friendship in just eight days.

Narrator: Later in the year, Portland fifth graders get to visit Japan, and there's another trip abroad in the eighth grade. Money for the trips and other program needs, is raised by an active group of parents, who say the benefits of the program are well worth the effort.

Parent: You don't spend extra time or effort thinking about how you're learning Japanese, and all of a sudden, they know Japanese, and I can't imagine how wonderful that would be, to graduate from school with this real skill.

Denise: I think if you can take a child at the age of five, and throw them into that cultural and language mix, and let them know that English is not the only language, that America is not the only culture, they develop a really broad tolerance of things that are different.

Denise: We live in a small world, and I really feel that, as it becomes increasingly smaller, we must learn to, not only get along with other nations and other cultures, we need to understand and not think that we are the only kids on the block.

Narrator: For more information on, What Works in Public Education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Ashley Ball
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Rob Weller
  • Michael Curtiss


  • Susan Blake

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Additional Photos Courtesy of

  • Takeshi Tomimori

Special Thanks to

  • Japanese Garden Society of Oregon

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Amy Thomas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow---I'm still in shock to see non-Japanese students/teachers speaking and singing in Japanese! How interesting! I wonder: would I have been different person today if I myself were educated in a language-immersion school environment. Without ever knowing, I already know the answer. This is an amazing time for both students and teachers, and I only wish that I am challenged as a teacher in such a way.

Nathan's picture

There is no doubt that starting young is the key to successful language learning. It is fantastic to see this kind of immersion so early on. If only this kind of opportunity were available in more schools.

Rurik Nackerud's picture
Rurik Nackerud
Middle/High Educator & Technologist from Portland, Oregon

I wish I could work there - I think there is also a Russian and a Spanish Immersion program in Portland Public Schools.

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