The kindergarten classroom is as hustly and bustly as you would expect. In one corner, a group is clustered around easels, painting letters of the alphabet. In another, they sit and listen intently as a teacher reads a story about a naughty French girl in a convent. In the home corner, children are embroiled in dressing up and acting out a raucous domestic comedy. Nothing unusual in any of this. Except that the alphabet painters are painstakingly working on characters from the Japanese alphabet, the teacher is reading Madeleine in Japanese and the amateur dramatists are dressed in kimonos. And, more to the point, the classroom is in the United States.
Throughout the school, one class in each grade (year group) is getting on with the business of learning Japanese: learning to read it, write it, speak it and understand something of the country and the people from which it comes. For half of every day for 12 years, until they graduate from high school, these children are being immersed in Japanese in the same way that in other schools around the city children are learning Spanish.
America is certainly taking language teaching seriously. Times sure have changed since Cuban refugees with dubious shoes and teaching skills to match unsuccessfully tried to cajole classrooms full of antagonistic adolescent monoglots, among them your faithful correspondent, into uttering the odd Hola. Today, parents are desperate to get their children into innovative language programmes designed to get language skills functioning - and fast. Americans have seen the future and the future for their children, as far as they're concerned, is bilingual.
Most interesting is the emphasis on younger children. Where such things exist, most of it is in the mould of the traditional, twice-a-week blast of vocabulary and conversation. But more interesting methodologies and approaches are beginning to make an important, if still tiny, impact on primary language teaching.
Radical educational approaches crop up in the most unexpected places in America. The classroom described above is in Portland, Oregon, a town framed by the snow-capped Cascade Mountain Range to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It's as purdy as a picture and because of it, a veritable refuge for all the stressed-out, socially and economically mobile refugees fleeing New York and the once industrial Midwest, looking for somewhere cleaner and saner to bring up their families. Despite their ever-growing presence, however, Portland still manages to retain an air of hokeyness compared with the infinitely hipper Seattle nearby.
But its smalltown, wild Pacific northwest feel belies an education programme that leaves us Old Worlders looking like gormless new kids on the block. Maybe it has something to do with its geographical vantage point, looking west towards the lucrative employment marketplaces of the Far East, or east across the entire North American continent and the dominant minority cultures therein. Or indeed south to Mexico, Central America and beyond. Whatever it is that has given Oregonians the vision and commitment to ensure that their primary-school-aged children learn a second language, it's something that the English, now only a short drive away from continental Europe, still lack.
The jewels in Portland's school system's crown are the Japanese and Spanish language immersion programmes operating in seven elementary schools in the city and elsewhere throughout the state. Although they do not offer 100 per cent immersion in the true sense of the word - only half the day is taught through the medium of either Japanese or Spanish, the other half in English - the state-run programmes are models of good planning, excellent teaching and creative thinking. Only the private schools can afford to run bona fide full-day immersion programmes.
At Richmond School, Rewnee Ito-Staub, principal of the school and herself a Japanese American, explains the aims of the programme, one of two in the city. "This is a holistic approach to language acquisition, in which skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing are integrated into a meaningful total experience. Our children learn their second language in an environment that buzzes with communication."
Every pupil has two teachers each day, one teaching exclusively in English and the other in Japanese. The day is split down the middle between the two and subject matter is divided between languages according to the teachers' professional judgment, the individual strengths of the teachers in the subjects and the availability of appropriate materials in Japanese.
In the Japanese classroom, explains Deanne Balzer, co-ordinator of the immersion programme and a bilingual Japanese speaker, "Students participate in social situations and learn responses that would be appropriate in Japan. They learn the significance to Japanese culture of respect, politeness, motivation, co-operation and harmony. We integrate arts activities like dance, music, calligraphy, flower arranging and martial arts with other subjects. That way, children get a balanced learning experience."
Complementing the immersion programme is a range of extra-curricular activities organised and funded by the Japanese Immersion Education Foundation, a Portland-based national non-profit organisation comprised of parents and educators committed to developing opportunities to provide immersion language experiences outside the school setting.
Under the direction of lawyer George Mardikes, who has two children in the programme, the foundation has established, among other things, an overnight summer science camp taught solely in Japanese, in co-operation with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It also helps support the two-week visit 40 fifth-graders (9 to 10-year-olds) from Richmond's immersion programme are making to Japan this summer.
In addition, the evangelical Mardikes and his colleagues are lobbying the public school system to add another Japanese elementary immersion programme. "Immersion language teaching is so much more than about acquiring a language. When it's introduced from a young age, it opens children's minds to the world, helping them to be more questioning and curious about things and accepting of other peoples and cultures. And it can't be denied that having a second language is an enormous advantage in the job market that our kids will be competing in."
Across the city, the Spanish immersion programme at Ainsworth Elementary School is so over-subscribed - with more than 200 applicants for 54 kindergarten places every year - that it has had to devise a complicated lottery system. Those lucky parents whose children have made it into the programme are convinced of its success. One mother, Sara Dochow, has three children enrolled. The oldest, Milo, started when it was first introduced at Ainsworth nine years ago.
"All three of my children, now aged 14, 12 and 10, started the programme in kindergarten and now speak fluent Spanish. I'm very impressed with how they have progressed with their language skills and also with how it has made them more sensitive to the problems that non English speaking people in America face every day."
While extra English tuition has been offered after school hours for children who require a boost, neither parents nor teachers have seen this as a problem. In fact, it is a measure of how favourably the programme is regarded by the Portland public school district that, despite swingeing budget cuts throughout the district, including a loss of two full-time teachers per school next year, the immersion programme is not being touched. Oregon may be a few thousand miles away as the crow flies, but looking at the priorities put on language learning by the school system, it's in another galaxy.