Benefits of a Bilingual Education

Photo by pacovida

Photo by pacovida

Bilingual Education has long been the norm in much of the world, but is only recently gaining more interest and publicity in the US. Despite some states’ politicizing of bilingual education, several types of immersion programs have a solid history in the US, and it is very exciting to see interest in them grow. More and more research is being conducted on the benefits of bilingualism, and, as parents try to prepare their children for the unknown future of the 21st century, many bilingual immersion programs are beginning to shine in the field of education.

For many years in California and other parts of the US, transitional bilingual education was prevalent, which focused on taking non-English speakers and mainstreaming them into regular English classes as quickly as possible without any support or interest in their native language. This eventually evolved in some areas to developmental bilingual education, which still places developing English fluency as a priority, but also attempts to support the student’s education by providing some instruction in their native language.

Dual-Language Immersion (also called Two-Way Immersion) models, a third type of bilingual education, provide instruction in two languages, and usually emphasize the importance of both. This type of bilingual education is often a path that is purposefully selected and valued by the families who give this opportunity to their children. Dual-language immersion approaches are most effective because they support both the child’s native and non-native languages, giving equal power and importance to both, as well as capitalizing on the skills that transfer between languages (Scanlan, 2009). Language is taught most often through content, giving all learning a deeper meaning.

A variety of structures exist within the category of dual-language immersion. Some schools place one teacher of each language in the same classroom at the same time, some have only one teacher who is bilingual and teaches part of the time in each language, and some have separate teachers for each language who teach at different times. In order to be a full immersion model, the target language is taught at least 50% of the time, if not more. Most research shows that a mix of native and non-native speakers in the classroom is most effective and that it is beneficial to all students to spend most of their time in groups that include speakers of both languages.

Dual-language immersion programs are most beneficial when students begin earlier and stay longer. Starting a program at age three or four and remaining in a bilingual educational environment through at least middle school, if not high school, allows a student to gain the most benefits. If a student goes to a bilingual pre-school, he may be bilingual, but not biliterate. If she goes through elementary school in a bilingual immersion program, she will likely be bilingual and biliterate, but not necessarily at a higher level of functioning, nor bicultural. If a student progresses through middle school, she will likely be bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. Being in an educational environment increases benefits by allowing for the development of academic language, skills and processes beyond simply being bilingual at home.

Benefits of bilingualism also include a more informed, empathetic and enlightened view (Baker, 2011; Aalai 2013), positive attitudes towards multiculturalism, as well as increased appreciation of other cultures and people from other countries (Center for Applied Linguistics). On a more technical level, bilinguals have been shown to have higher math and science scores (Petitto and Dunbar, 2004), and many studies have shown not only an easier time learning future languages, but also increased job opportunities.

However, with all of the wonderful benefits of bilingual immersion education come some challenges. The first is that it will not look exactly like the monolingual American education most of us have encountered. There will be perceived “gaps” due to periods of time when the brain is processing two different languages, often referred to as “incubation periods,” which are generally followed by a spike in output. Certain milestones, such as learning to read, are often delayed by a short time – such as formally teaching reading in 1st grade in a bilingual school as opposed to kindergarten in traditional American schools. Many bilingual schools report results on standardized tests that are lower than other independent schools in 3rd grade, but are at grade level in 5th grade and exceed grade level in 8th grade. Another challenge faced by parents is providing support and excitement around the target language. Exposing children to music, books, movies, TV, cultural events and play dates in the target language are all effective supports, but require effort from the parents. It is important to see bilingual immersion education as something that requires more energy from a child, and thus to take care not to overburden them with as many extra-curricular activities as one might choose in a monolingual educational setting. Many studies have shown that only two languages should be learned academically at a time, until the foundations are laid, so students should refrain from studying a 3rd language in school until at least 3rd grade.

If you are considering a bilingual immersion program, it is helpful to look for the following in schools:

  • At least 50% time spent teaching in target language;
  • Native language teachers;
  • Mix of native/non-native speakers in same class;
  • Sustained periods of monolingual instruction in each language;
  • Language taught through content;
  • Content spirals and connects, not direct repeat;
  • Clear curriculum, standards, goals, assessment; and
  • In school support – study hall, resources, cultural activities, community building, communication.

Overall, if a family is patient, committed, willing to have a bit of faith and let go of previous educational expectations, a bilingual education can be a truly rewarding and amazing journey.

Kate Lussen grew up as a faculty child in independent schools and has a Masters in Education from Teachers College at Columbia.  She has been involved in bilingual education for over 15 years, and is currently the Assistant Head of School at the International School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, CA.  

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