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Learn by doing: IB and the path to bilingualism

We invited IB Diploma graduates to reflect on post-IB life and offer perspectives on topics of their choosing.  Alumna Jasmine Jackson-Irwin is one of this year’s cohort of alumni contributing authors.

By Jasmine Jackson-Irwin

Jasmine Jackson-Irwin is a proud North Carolina native and recipient of the IB Diploma from Parkland Magnet High School.

Jasmine Jackson-Irwin is a recipient of the IB Diploma from Parkland Magnet High School.

I remember the exact moment I became conversational in German. I was 18 years old, only four months removed from my high school graduation and had recently moved to Dresden, Germany for an internship. Sitting at the dining room table, not more than six weeks in my new home, I listened as my host-father and a family friend bantered about the recent election cycle. I followed the conversation intently, paying close attention to the challenging subtleties of regional dialect. The family friend challenged my host-father with a controversial statement, and instead of remaining silent, I quipped back with a terse rebuttal and poked fun at his comment – both he and my host-father laughed warmly in response.

Having someone laugh at your jokes may seem like a mundane desire, but anyone who has attempted to learn a second language recognizes the difficulty of communicating simple ideas, nevertheless humor. Although that major milestone in my own foreign language study came outside the confines of a school, its roots can be traced to a desk in a 6th-grade classroom.

As do all IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) students, I spent my first year in MYP trudging through quarter-long units of key foreign languages. Like Goldilocks, I struggled to fit into the flow of French and Spanish, both seeming too comfortable and familiar. The German unit arrived, and I became enamored with the difficulty of the language, and the challenge it presented. The intricacy of grammar, and pronunciation of (what felt like!) endless compound words, invigorated in me a sense of purpose to accomplish the seemingly impossible goal of fluency.

I knew that mastering German would entail countless hours of studying, patience in myself, and tolerance for error. More importantly, given the language requirements of the IB curriculum, I knew that I should get cozy with the idea of working on the language for the duration of my secondary education. Yet as an 11-year-old, I never could have expected how profoundly the study of German would impact my education and my life beyond graduation from IB.

The MYP allowed me to focus on the fundamentals of language acquisition before moving into more rigorous Language B coursework during the Diploma Programme (DP). I spent those final two years of my IB education pouring through not-so-simple texts, fighting through grammar exercises, and stumbling through spoken assessments with my instructor (for whose patience I am still grateful). But even as I struggled, or studied for the next exam, I chose to remember the exciting moments of learning another language: finally remembering that one vocabulary word that always slipped my mind; linking the theme of a German news clip with a topic covered in another subject area; having my first dream in a language that was not my mother tongue. It was those moments that allowed me to understand fully what makes the IB curriculum so unique, and how this distinct learning experience would impact my future.

On its website, the IB states that MYP language acquisition “provides a linguistic and academic challenge [sic] in order to facilitate the best possible educational experience.” In August 2009, I received the results of my DP exams—and news that I had received the IB Diploma—while in Atlanta acquiring my visa to move to Germany. The moment seemed almost serendipitous; the many years of studying a language and culture in a classroom culminating in a transcontinental journey to actually live out the teachings of my education.

Months after that first “aha!” moment at the dining room table, another “aha!” moment came outside of a theater on a February night. Snow falling softly on my wool coat, I chatted with a group of girls milling around in front of me. We discussed the latest album of the band for which we waited; I joked about my unfamiliarity as a southerner from the US with the miserable cold engulfing us. They laughed, not at my jokes, but at their ignorance to my nationality. Shocked but overwhelmed with joy, I listened to them explain that the precision and accuracy of my German led them to assume I was a local.

Far removed from a classroom full of flashcards and grammar books, I finally accomplished the original goal set by my 11-year-old self: fluency in German. The impact of that spontaneous conversation lingered as I entered the theater. Despite the distance from my home in the United States, my mind raced with the memory of that 6th-grade classroom, where my international education and love of language was born.

Jasmine Jackson-Irwin is a proud North Carolina native and recipient of the IB Diploma from Parkland Magnet High School. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Jasmine paired her academic pursuits in Political Science and German Literature with extracurricular advocacy work, addressing issues in state and local politics, criminal justice reform, and international education. After graduating from Carolina, Jasmine made a professional jump into the tech industry and hopscotched across the United States, most recently landing in San Francisco. She can generally be found reading voraciously about the music industry, ranting about the superiority of Southern cuisine, and dancing in the corner of concert venues across the Bay Area.