Bilingual is Better

This post was originally published on March 26, 2009.

Although I believe I already was a supporter of dual language immersion programs prior to the extensive research I’ve done to put together this education series, now that I’ve learned more of its intricacies I can definitely say I have become one of its fervent advocates.

Allow me to  tell you why.

A well-designed dual immersion program encompasses the “best of both worlds,” as I was told repeatedly by the educators I interviewed in the last couple of weeks. Extensive research both in the United States and other countries shows that students who participate in programs that allow them to add a second language to their first–whether they are language minority (i.e. Spanish) or language majority (i.e. English) students, “demonstrate higher levels of language proficiency, achievement and self-concept.”

Furthermore, the immersion of English speakers into the minority language promotes “higher levels of second language proficiency.” While the immersion of Spanish speakers in their native language produces “not only higher levels of their native language but also higher levels of English proficiency.”

So, what are these dual immersion models?

According to Biliteracy for a Global Society, a publication by NCELA (the national clearinghouse for English language acquisition and instruction), dual language education models are different from other forms of instructing English language learners in that:

  • Language minority students are integrated with native English speakers in an environment that explicitly values the language and culture of the language minority student and that treats all students, regardless of language or ethnic background, in an equitable fashion.
  • At the kindergarten and first grade levels, the target language is the status language for a significant portion of the instructional day and English speakers look up to and are helped by the target language speakers, because of their knowledge of the target language. During English time, the situation is reversed.
  • Both groups of speakers are highly valued, not only the English speakers, as is the norm in most classrooms.
  • Teachers are trained to treat all students equitably and to have high academic expectations for all students. Teachers are expected to communicate this equity to students in the classroom sot that all students value each other, regardless of their language, ethnic, religious, or social class background.
Photo by hermmermferm
Photo by hermmermferm

Within dual immersion programs, there are two main versions used to accomplish the aforementioned objectives. In the education world, they are known as the 90:10 and the 50:50 models. And, most schools determine which one they’re going to use depending on its demographics, needs and resources.

In the 90:10 model, the amount of time spent with each language varies depending on what grade the student is in. Usually, they spend 90% of their time being taught in Spanish and 10% in English while in kindergarten and first grade. By second and third grades, the percentages shift to 80% of the time in Spanish and 20% in English. The idea is to gradually move to where students will be taught half of the time in one language and the other half in the other. This normally happens by the time the students get to fifth grade.

The 50:50 model does this from the very beginning. However, there are a few ways to actually accomplish teaching half of the time in English and the other half in the second language. Some schools do it by dividing the school day in two. Other alternate languages each week. And still other teach certain subjects in English and others in the second language.

It’s important to mention that “to maintain an environment of educational and linguistic equity in the classroom and to promote interactions among native and non-native English speakers, the most desirable ratio  is 50% English speakers to 50% second language speakers.” Many dual immersion programs have failed because of their inability to assure that there are no more than two speakers of one language to one speaker of the other language.

Why some have failed…

Unfortunately, this is not the only reason some of these programs have failed. In yesterday’s entry I spoke about how issues of education involving Spanish seem to create more controversy than any other foreign language and promised to explore why. I think the reasons are obvious. In the end, it all boils down to immigration and how for many Americans it represents a threat to their national identity.

As Univision’s anchor, Jorge Ramos, told me in his recent interview, “In the United States, many people have the wrong idea that what unites the country and its people is the language, when the reality is that it’s all about its values, its laws, its attitudes and the fact that they have always accepted people that come from all over the world.”

According to the educators I interviewed for this series, there’s a lot of ignorance surrounding the methods for teaching English language learners, dual immersion programs and bilingual education in general.

“I think bilingual education is criticized because some Americans are so isolationists and can’t see the importance of learning another language,” says Sisi Martinez Purfield, a bilingual kindergarten teacher with 16 years of experience. “I think that there is also racism involved, ‘Les gusta el pan pero no el panadero‘.”

The truth is that many of those who oppose bilingual education don’t really have expertise in this field to begin with and many more base their criticism on the results of some bad programs which didn’t accomplish either one of its objectives. En otras palabras, they neither helped ELL acquire English nor did they help them maintain their heritage language, Spanish.

In turn, this led to the adoption of English-only education policies in the states of California, Arizona and Massachusetts in the last 20 years. California was the first state, in 1998 through Proposition 227, to place strict limitations on bilingual education for English language learners in its public schools. Mainly, these policies mandate English-only immersion programs for most children until they become fully proficient in English.

This, even when studies have proven that it takes the average English language learner between five and seven years to master academic English skills, such as writing an essay or comprehending a novel. As a result, to just mandate this type of student to attend a full immersion program doesn’t work.

“The best results come from dual immersion classes, in which students learn half the time in English and half in their native language, usually Spanish, with half the class being native English speakers and the others native Spanish speakers,” or so say Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco, authors and co-directors of the immigration studies program at New York University, in a New York Times blog which aims to start a national conversation stemming from a series of articles on immigration.

It is easy to see why students enrolled in dual immersion programs succeed and end up being not only bilingual and biliterate, but also bicultural. What more can someone interested in raising their children with two languages ask for? Unfortunately, a lot because there simply aren’t enough of this type of schools available to our children.

Tomorrow: we’ll share how one school district in California has figured out a way to do it right.

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