Bilingual Education: A Definition

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Photo by Gaetan Lee

Back in March, we published a series of entries related to the complex subject of bilingual education. Ana Lilian and I spent a bunch of time researching this topic: interviewing some of those involved in this area of education–including parents and teachers–and even visiting a few schools which offer this option to their communities.

Since they were pretty popular with our readers, this week we’ve decided to re-post them in case you might have missed them the first time or if you’re new to SpanglishBaby. Before we get started, I’d like to preface this whole series by telling you that bilingual education is one intricate matter.

By the way, if your kids are currently enrolled in a bilingual program of any sort, we’d love to hear from you. Remember the main purpose behind the creation of SpanglishBaby is to become a community where we can all learn from each other by sharing our trials, successes and everyday stories. You can leave us a comment below, post the info in our forums or send us a message. According to a recent New York Times article, there’s about 5.1 million English language learners in this country–or the equivalent of 1 in 10 of all students enrolled in public schools–a 60 percent increase from 1995 to 2005. And, although not all of these are Spanish speakers, the majority are.

History of Bilingual Education

None of this is new, however, except for the current dominant minority language mentioned above. For some reason, Spanish seems to create more of a heated debate than other foreign languages. It is almost as if it didn’t have the same value as French or German. (I believe the fact that it’s the third –second according to some–most spoken language on earth should give all an idea as to its worth.)

Attached to this absurd stigma is the common misconception — which has been around for a long time now and is a favorite of opponents of bilingual education — that earlier immigrants came to this country without knowing any English and just learned it, but now immigrants want special treatment.

In fact, the opposite is the truth. Although I knew the following to be true, I wasn’t really aware of all the details. Check this out: “Earlier European immigrants were aided by many bilingual services and by schools where much instruction was in their native tongue. By the mid-1800s, many states, including Pennsylvania, maintained public schools with bilingual programs. Like many immigrant children today, earlier immigrant students did not all do fine, often suffering from schools where resources were scarce and attention to their language issues was minimal. In 1911, the U.S. immigration service found that 77 percent of Italian, 60 percent of Russian, and 51 percent of German immigrant children were one or more grade levels behind.”

I found that in the Notebook, an independent newspaper founded by a group of teachers, parents and community members concerned about the state of public education in Philadelphia. It was written by retired teacher Ron Whitehorne, a member of the paper’s editorial board. Education officials around the country have been trying to figure out the best way to educate all these English language learners for a while through a series of different programs. Some of the best, in my opinion, are dual language immersion programs — the ones that take advantage of the situation by allowing both English language learners and Spanish language learners to learn from each other, thus becoming bilingual. It is “the best of both words,” as someone recently described it.

Photo by Ana Lilian
Photo by Ana Lilian

Bilingual Education vs Dual Immersion

Before we venture further into this whole subject matter though, I feel it’s of utmost importance to explain some basics. Most importantly, the difference between what has become to be known as “bilingual education” and “dual language or immersion programs.” As well as the different methods for achieving these.

Bilingual education is the term most often used when referring to the method used by many schools to help an English language learner “assimilate” to their new environment. In many occasions, it refers to the fact that there are bilingual students present, but no bilingualism in the curriculum.

Sisi Martinez Purfield, an awesome mom from our bilingual playgroup, who also happens to be a bilingual kindergarten teacher in Denver, CO, with 16 years of experience, was kind enough to explain some of the terminology the way only a teacher can.

She told me there are two main types of bilingual education:

1) Transitional: English language learners (ELL) are taught in English all day, but the school will help them out a bit usually by “pulling them out” of regular classes to attend ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction, mostly related to Language Arts (grammar, reading comprehension, composition, etc.)

2) Maintenance: ELL are usually instructed in their native language, at least for part of the day. This allows for the native language to not be completely ignored, even though full transition into English instruction is the ultimate goal. These types of programs usually aren’t successful, mainly because “to tell the truth it often hasn’t been executed very well,” Martinez Purfield explains. It seems to boil down to “Lack of training for teachers and lack of experience. Many districts are desperate and they’ll hire someone just because they speak Spanish, which of course doesn’t ensure that that person will be a good teacher.”

Other education experts we spoke to agree, but we’ll have more on that tomorrow. In the meantime, consider this: “Education experts estimate that it takes the average learner of English at least two years of study to hold conversations, and five to seven years to write essays, understand a novel or explain scientific processes at the level of their English-speaking peers,” as reported by The New York Times in this recent article. This is why, in my humble opinion, I believe that the other option — referred to as “dual language” or “dual immersion” or “two-way immersion” programs — is the best one out there.

According to Biliteracy for a Global Society, a publication by NCELA (the national clearinghouse for English language acquisition and instruction), these type of programs are designed so that both language minority (Spanish speaking , for example) and language majority (generally, English speaking) students are instructed together in both languages. Therefore, both groups benefit by becoming bilingual. “In this model both languages and populations are valued… students learn from each other,” says Martinez Purfield, who until recently worked at Fairmont Dual Immersion Academy, one of the few elementary schools that offers this type of program in the Denver area. “The goal here is for all to become ‘Bilingual,’ ‘Bicultural’ and ‘Biliterate.’

Doesn’t that sound awesome? But does this type of program really work and how?

Tomorrow: we’ll explore whether dual language immersion programs work and the different approaches used by educators. We’ll also have more on why “bilingual education” in all its forms is so highly criticized.

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