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Societal Changes Show the Value of Bilingual Education

September 01, 2014, 12:00 PM
Societal Changes Show the Value of Bilingual Education
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We’ve all heard that religion and politics are two topics that should be avoided in polite conversation, but that old truism could easily be amended to include bilingual education.

Depending on which side of the political or cultural fence you reside, bilingual education is viewed as either a cornerstone to improving educational opportunities for everyone, or it’s a practice that’s tearing at the fabric of American society. But, as with most complex, multi-faceted topics, the true impact of bilingual education on American schools, students and the community at large is not a black and white issue.

The fact that the United States is a country built by immigrants means that bilingual education has been a source of heated debate since the republic was founded. On the one hand are hard-line, “English-only” partisans that maintain allowing immigrants to continue to speak their native tongue hinders their assimilation into American society. They long for a solely English-speaking population and often point to immigrants of previous generations who claimed, “I didn’t have bilingual education, and I did just fine.”

Meanwhile, bilingual education proponents hold that a society that includes more people able to converse in multiple languages makes for a more versatile and better educated populace and workforce. America’s adherence to tenets of both sides of the argument has fluctuated over the decades, and the subject continues to push people’s buttons in many communities.

“The tide is changing. People are starting to realize bilingualism is a strength and a resource that has positive repercussions for all individuals,” says Maria S. Carlo, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics with the Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “We’re seeing a proliferation in the availability of dual language education programs.”

A long history

For today’s generation of English-speaking students, languages such as Spanish aren’t some esoteric elective needed to fill out their class schedule. For an increasing number of children — and their parents — it’s viewed as knowledge that is necessary to secure a good-paying job in an ultra-competitive job market.

“There’s always been bilingual education in the U.S., going back to the mid-1800s, including a long tradition of instruction done via the home language,” Carlo says. “We had a shift from that type of instruction being accepted and, for political reasons, there was push back on that ideal.”

Even the term “bilingual education” has different meanings. In the U.S., it is generally applied to instruction that teaches students called English language learners (ELLs) the “societal” (e.g., English) language via instruction in their native language as well as in English. Because of the high number of Hispanic citizens in the U.S., the native language usually is Spanish, but bilingualism also applies to native English speakers seeking to learn a second language. While bilingual education programs have existed on some level in the U.S. for generations, it took the passage of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968 to authorize at least a basic structure of the delivery methods of instruction.

In Texas, the Bilingual Education and Training Act of 1973 mandated that all public elementary schools with an enrollment of at least 20 students of limited English speaking ability in a given grade level must provide bilingual instruction. The act helped end the strident practice of “English-only” instruction that sought to immediately replace the child’s native language with English.

While passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 effectively usurped the provisions of the previous federal law, Carlo says the government remains steadfast in its support of programs of instruction for ELLs.

“Federal guidelines state that school systems are required to provide some form of assistance to children not proficient in the language of instruction (English),” she says. “There needs to be support provided to children to allow them to succeed in English language instruction classes. The law does not require what form that instruction takes, leaving it to the school districts to decide on the instruction model.”

Different approaches

According to Education.com, types of bilingual instruction include transitional bilingual education, in which English language learners in grades one to three are given some instruction in their native language so they do not fall behind in literacy or content study as they learn English. Maintenance, or late-exit bilingual education, is designed to be taught up to the middle-school years. This allows students to learn in their native language as they learn English in an English as a second language (ESL) format. Dual language immersion calls for students to be taught in a language that is new to them, also called the target language, as well as their native language. Carlo says this method even offers differing approaches.

The two-way type calls for classrooms comprising native speakers and target language speakers. Instruction is delivered in different proportions for both languages; in many cases it is 50-50.

“The advantage of this model is based on the idea that one of the important sources of learning is through peers. When children come together they have a motivation to learn so that they can play together, communicate and build things. This type of instruction brings about a lot of linguistic interaction,” Carlo says. “It’s a beautiful model, but not one every community can support. It works when you have a high-incidence language like Spanish, where you have many native speakers.”

The alternative to the two-way type is the one-way model. It is used when dealing with low-incidence languages or in communities lacking sufficient numbers of native speakers, making peer language counterparts rare.

She says the decision to provide instruction in the child’s first language is based on the notion that the learning of academic content is facilitated if it is introduced in a language in which the child is already competent. It is based on the theoretical assumption that cognitive skills learned in the native language can transfer to the second language. She says, for example, skills involving a child’s awareness that words are made up of smaller units of sound that can be manipulated, as well as decoding skills — the ability to understand that letters map into sounds in a systematic way — can give children an advantage in learning a second language if they are acquired in their native language first.

“Let’s say a child learns what the word ‘intricate’ means in their first language. Learning that word in English at a later time becomes simply a matter of acquiring a new label for an already known concept,” Carlo says. “Another example is the word ‘edifice.’ It’s kind of a sophisticated word in English, but ‘edificio’ is the everyday word for building in Spanish, so they acquire edificio much earlier, which makes learning the English word easier.”

Common in Texas

In Texas, where, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, people of Hispanic or Latino descent make up 38 percent of the population, bilingual education classes have become commonplace. Carlo says many school districts across the country look to the dual language programs such as those found in some Texas schools as a model to emulate in their own classrooms.

“There are advantages to beginning the learning process via the native language, but that doesn’t mean you have to delay English instruction,” Carlo says. “You have to continue to provide rich English instruction to help students catch up in English. I don’t think you’ll find a bilingual educator that would argue against the importance of teaching English early. What concerns bilingual educators is the idea that teaching English should come at the expense of academic learning. Those who support bilingual instruction believe that both aims can be achieved simultaneously.”

Carlo, who is currently conducting research on vocabulary instruction and ways to promote increasing children’s vocabularies, says when trying to determine the success of bilingual instruction programs, the role of socio-economic factors cannot be ignored.

“Whether English language learners go through bilingual or English-only programs, research indicates they do not achieve as well academically compared with the general population. It is a population that’s predominantly poor and with low parental education, so there are issues related to the effects of poverty on learning that affect how successful programs are,” she says.

But Carlo says research shows students can achieve similar levels of English proficiency in a given language regardless of the type of bilingual instruction provided.

“There are multiple models for providing instruction for ELLs. The choice of model should be based on a community’s linguistic aspirations, and the human resources available to that community. Dual language models in Spanish and English may be an option for communities where there are many Spanish speakers, and where you can find the required number of teachers who are well prepared to instruct within that model and speak both languages. However, dual language models are not necessarily an option for low-incidence languages,” she says.

Carlo says estimates indicate 5 to 10 percent of U.S. college graduates identify themselves as bilingual — a number that has grown in recent years, but still lags behind that of many European and industrialized countries where being multi-lingual is a marker of respected social status. She says improving instructional materials, as well as improved teacher education, will help the U.S. produce more multi-language speakers in the future.

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