Bilingual Education: Si or Non?
The truth about dual language programs.
I was fired up when I finally got the call. After a summer-long stint on the waitlist, my son was offered a spot in our public elementary school's new-fangled French/English dual language program.
It felt like winning a few grand on Lotto. Before I'd heard about the program, I thought the opportunity to give him the gift of a second language was, like blonde hair, something that just wasn't in the cards. English was my second language, and although my Armenian is usually reserved for family reunions and screenings of Borat, it occasionally comes in handy in the most unexpected ways. But I never suspected my bilingual upbringing might have helped my synapses fire faster and thus boost my test scores. My mostly monolingual husband did as well if not better in school than I did.
Kathryn Lindholm-Leary, Ph.D., professor of Child and Adolescent Development at San Jose State University and author of many books on dual language immersion education, says, aside from the obvious benefit of learning another language, studies show highly bilingual students reach higher levels of academic and cognitive functioning than do monolingual students or students with poor bilingual skills. "With dual language immersion programs, parents are getting far more education for their kids, and they are getting it for free," she says.
In just one year, the program at our school grew so popular that parents mobilized, and succeeded in adding a second class. "We opted for the dual language program instead of a gifted and talented program at another school," says Denise Wilson, a Brooklyn, NY, mom whose daughter is in my son's class. "When we didn't make it into the lottery, a few of us on the waitlist met with the principal to find out what we could do to get the funding. We were willing to open our checkbooks. Compared to Lycée Français at $40,000 a year, whatever it took would likely be a bargain!"
When Aleksandra Kaminski's husband was transferred to New York from Paris this past July, they decided to move to Brooklyn, just to put her daughter in the program in our school. Kaminski says, "Being bilingual is a luxury. Learning language is good exercise for your brain. It helps you to grow and thrive in everything. And if you travel a lot, there are no borders."
Fabrice Jaumont, education attach? to the French Embassy, says parents like Wilson were instrumental in launching five of these dual language programs in the New York City area. "It's very hard to start anything at an institutional level, but when the desire for these programs comes from the parents, it's more convincing for city officials than it coming from a foreign government."
There are typically two types of dual language programs: 50/50 where English is spoken half the time along with the immersion language, and 90/10 where teachers speak the immersion language 90% of the time for grades K-1, then gradually increase the amount of English instruction until fifth grade, when it becomes a 50/50 split.
Classes consist of half English-speaking students and half "native language" students. Teachers only use one language at a time (no translation or language mixing), with the objective of developing high levels of oral language skills and literacy in English and the native language, academic achievement at or above grade level in both languages, and positive attitudes toward both cultures.
Kids in Europe and the Middle East have been learning two and three languages in elementary school for ages, yet many parents here in the U.S. have reservations about these programs.
"This country is largely a monolingual English society, despite the fact that there have always been many immigrant groups who speak other languages," says Elizabeth Howard, Ph.D., assistant professor of Bilingual Education at the Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut. "Parents are afraid their kids are going to be left behind because they won't understand what's going on at math time, or they won't learn to read because they are learning to read in a language they don't speak very well."
I must admit, I sweated it a little when I initially envisioned my barely-five-year-old kid's teacher as an incomprehensible Peanuts cartoon, but experts say building a foundation of fluency at an early age will help him later. "Unless they visit the country or speak it at home, English-speaking kids are only exposed to the immersion language in school, so if they don't start young enough, they have trouble getting up to speed in the language to the level that they would be able to use the language to learn math, science and social studies concepts," says Howard.
Depending on where you live, this type of dual language immersion program can be the next best thing to pricey private schools or gifted and talented programs (which ironically use a lottery to select students), or as a means of integrating immigrant children.
Parents in the economically diverse town of Sonoma, CA, rallied to implement a 90/10 dual language immersion program at Flowery Elementary School, which was considered ideal because of the considerable concentration of native Spanish speakers in the area.
Teacher Janine Tommasi has two kids enrolled in the dual language immersion program at Flowery and, in spite of some judgmental commentary she's heard, plans on signing up her third. "I get asked all the time why I send my kids to their school, because it's on the low socio-economic part of town," says Tommasi. "My parents are from France and all my relatives speak four or five languages, so I have a different perspective. I love that my kids don't see color, language, poor or rich."
Teri Cunningham, a mom from Brooklyn, is hoping for the same result. "The dual language program provides a broader perspective than the current No Child Left Behind test-results-focused public school system," says Cunningham. "I believe by introducing my son's curious mind to a new language, his heart will open to other cultures and I'll give him the world."
Howard considers this kind of cross-cultural exposure one of the biggest benefits of these programs, "The development of cross-cultural competence is certainly a plus in terms of relating to other people in society."
There are more than 350 public schools in the U.S. implementing dual language immersion programs and many more starting each year. Most experts and parents agree that bilingual programs are highly desirable in today's global economy, but there are a myriad of administrative challenges in launching these programs in public schools.
The NCLB testing Cunningham spoke of can throw a monkey wrench in the growth of dual language programs in certain areas. Schools like Flowery host 90/10 programs in which students don't start reading in English until the third grade, and some of the native Spanish speakers are at a disadvantage when taking the tests, which are in English. "I sit with a dictionary and help my kids with their homework, and they see the value and importance of it," says Tommasi. "But that's not necessarily a reality for all students. Some parents might be unable to give the support in learning English at home."
In turn, these scores reflect poorly on the schools, and administrators hedge on expanding the programs. "Our scores are horrible," Tommasi says. "It got in the paper, which created a challenge. You have to get the district to buy in, because you have to show that the kids are doing well."
"The dominance of English standardized testing has certainly created pressure in some of these programs," says Howard. "States like Texas allow testing in Spanish, and it makes a huge difference."
Lindholm-Leary says the benefits of these dual language immersion programs are measurable regardless of NCLB testing and socio-economics. "We looked at students who were in largely minority, low socio-economic schools and saw that students who were in immersion scored higher than their peers fluent in only one language, and showed sustained growth across the years," she says.
Another challenge in expanding these programs is finding the right teachers. "Very few teachers go in the door prepared to work in dual language," says Howard. "Many of them have backgrounds in secondary level foreign language education, because it's predominant in this country, but it's an entirely different approach."
Educators from native language countries might get tangled up in American red tape. "New York State asks for certain certifications in bilingual education, and in lower primary schools, so it's very hard to attract teachers from France," says Jaumont.
In spite of these roadblocks, the popularity of dual language immersion education shows that parents feel a free way to give their kids a leg up in today's competitive global economy is worth fighting for even if they don't know the language themselves.
I'm just happy my son's happy. He did find the first few weeks of dual language kindergarden a bit confusing, but as Lindholm-Leary and Howard both said, kids this age catch on real quick. We're only a month in and I've caught him singing to himself in French on more than one occasion. And he says Diego's catchphrase, "Al Rescate, Amigos!," with a perfect French accent.