By: Melanie Smollin
Over the past 15 years, traditional bilingual education programs have fallen out of favor in the United States. Criticized for isolating English-language learners (ELLs) in remedial classrooms with watered down instruction, states like California, Arizona and Massachusetts scrapped bilingual programs in favor of English language immersion.
But bilingual education is receiving a makeover. With a new name, fresh face and totally different attitude, increasing numbers of American families are embracing dual language immersion.
“Bilingual education has basically become a dirty word, but dual-language programs seem to have this cachet that people are glomming onto,” Julie Sugarman of the Center for Applied Linguistics tells the L.A. Times. “They are successful for English-language learners. And white, middle-class parents want these programs to give their children an edge in the increasingly globalized world.”
Sugarman estimates that dual language immersion programs have multiplied in the past few years from a few hundred to more than 1,000. States leading the way include California, Texas, New Mexico, New York, Washington and Illinois.
Here are five reasons why dual language immersion programs are becoming so popular:
1. BILINGUALISM FOR ALL: In contrast to the remedial bilingual education model, which aims to bring ELLs up to speed in English so they can be mainstreamed, dual language immersion is an enrichment model that challenges all students to become fluent in two languages. Classes are often taught by two teachers who each speak exclusively in one language. There is no translation or repeated lessons. Native English speakers and ELLs learn a second language together with no stigma attached.
2. CLOSING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP: The recent move away from traditional bilingual education toward English language immersion was meant to help ELLs catch up with English speaking peers. Instead, standardized test scores from 2003 to 2010 show a widening achievement gap. Numerous studies demonstrate that ELLs become more fluent in English when they learn to read in their primary language.
In 2004, Virginia P. Collier and Wayne P. Thomas from George Mason University published an 18-year longitudinal study of dual language programs in 23 school districts and 15 states. They found that dual language immersion fully closes the achievement gap between ELLs and native speakers of English.
3. POSITIVE SCHOOL CULTURE: Collier and Thomas discovered that the effectiveness of dual language education extends beyond academic outcomes. The entire school community benefits when multiple languages and cultural heritages are validated and respected. Friendships bridge class and language barriers. Teachers report higher levels of job satisfaction. Parents from both language groups participate more actively in schools.
4. BRAIN BENEFITS: Cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok has studied bilingualism for almost 40 years. She recently told the New York Times that people who regularly use two languages tend to perform better on executive function tasks and maintain better cognitive functioning with age. Bilingualism is also associated with a five to six year delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms after diagnosis.
5. HAPPY KIDS: Six-year-old Kyra is a first grader who loves her dual language Spanish-English program. “It’s really fun because your brain gets to work with two different languages, and your tongue gets to do two different sounds,” she told the L.A. Times.
“This is an amazing program and people should consider putting their children in it,” said sixth grader Isaiah Coyotl, the son of Mexican immigrants. “It could help a lot of boys and girls get better jobs, speak two languages and help people in need.”