Opinion: Why Is Bilingual Education Better?

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The state of Texas is currently under fire for not providing a quality education to students learning English, particularly at the middle and high school levels. LULAC is suing the state for failing to teach academic content and English to the 17 percent of public schools students who are labeled as English learners.

This begs the questions, what is the best approach to teaching English learners who need to acquire grade level content knowledge and English language skills?

States should be in the business of adding to children’s linguistic toolkit and not asking them to leave their best tool at home.

— Mary A. Stewart

California is reconsidering that question. Recently, a bill passed the State Senate that will allow voters to decide if the option of bilingual education should be returned to school districts. In 1997 the citizens of California voted to virtually end bilingual education. Now, nearly 20 years later, no amount of anti-immigrant sentiment can stand up to the vast amount of scientific research, and a little common sense, that shows us that bilingual is, quite simply, better.

However, not all bilingual education programs are equal.

In transitional programs, a student’s first language is viewed as a crutch. The language will be used for some instruction for only a short period of time, until the student can learn academic content in English. The goal is to transition the student to an English-only learning environment as soon as possible. These programs do not seek to fully develop both languages, but do provide some native language support for a limited amount of time.

However, in the dual language model of bilingual education, the goal is full bilingualism, biliteracy, and biculturalism. These programs should last through at least fifth grade and preferably through high school to produce the best outcome. This model is not about translating, nor is it about merely learning another language. It is about learning in another language for some subject matter and learning in one’s first language for other subject matter. Teachers are trained to teach language (i.e. English) and content (i.e. Math) at the same time. So during the 45-minute block for math, students learn both.

Under the larger umbrella of dual language programs, there are two variations: one-way and two-way.

Two-way immersion, or two-way dual language is a program for everyone. Native English-speaking children usually must start by kindergarten and compromise half of the class. Roughly, the other half of the class are children who speak the second language such as Spanish. For part of the day or week, a group of students become the language mentors for the others while learning language and content simultaneously. Then, the reverse. In addition to language, these two groups of students also learn multicultural skills from each other.

Another option for students learning English is a one-way immersion, or one-way dual language, program where students of the same minority language compromise the entire class such as native Spanish-speakers. They are taught in two languages, their first language and English. One potential drawback of this program is that the children miss out on their best language teachers, other students. However, schools can fill this void by doing some activities with classes of students who already speak English fluently.

But what kind of bilingual is better?

Research shows that well-implemented bilingual programs that seek to fully develop both languages are better for the academic success of students learning English. They actually learn more English, have better test scores, and achieve greater academic success in dual language bilingual programs over English-only or transitional programs that view the first language as a problem that needs to be dealt with quickly, by being replaced by English.

Of course, we might think that children will not learn academic skills in English if they are receiving a significant amount of their instruction in another language. However, multiple studies have found that over the long-term of language minority students’ tenure in K-12 education, those in dual language programs outperform those in English-only or transitional bilingual programs. Graduation rates are higher, they perform better on tests in English, and they have greater literacy skills in both languages.

Additionally, studies show that English-speaking children in bilingual classes outperform their monolingual peers on English tests. (And they can pass the same tests in another language!) Learning in two languages does not prompt confusion, delays, or learning difficulties. Research shows it is the contrary.

So from a research perspective, bilingual is better. From the perspective of an educator, I have seen how dual language programs that view language as a resource greatly benefit students learning English. And I have seen far too often the damaging effects of years of schooling that view one’s language as a problem or merely a crutch.

States should be in the business of adding to children’s linguistic toolkit and not asking them to leave their best tool at home.