In Defense of Bilingual Education

As a bilingual educator, I often find myself fighting an uphill battle in regards to bilingual education.  Many people, including fellow teachers, do not see the need for bilingual education and advocate for English-only programs for speakers of other languages.  Some states have even gone so far as to outlaw bilingual education, and as such, bilingual education has been pulled into the political realm.  Most of the political debates are regarding immigration and link education in Spanish to illegal immigration, but the fact remains that students ultimately achieve greater rates of academic success when they are initially taught in their native language.  Many skills (such as comprehension strategies) can be generalized and transferred from the native language to English.  Bilingual education is necessary if we want our English Language Learners to succeed.

I have chosen to give a brief overview of some of the more successful models of bilingual education.  I should note that bilingual education can, obviously, be applied to any languages, but for my purposes I am choosing to focus on Spanish and English.

Most schools in the U.S. follow the Traditional Bilingual Education (TBE) model.  Students enter kindergarten in classrooms that have about 90 percent of instruction in Spanish and 10 percent in English.  As the years go by, the English instruction increases while the Spanish instruction decreases and students are “transitioned” into English-only classrooms (usually by the end of elementary school).  This type of program has its drawbacks, but when there are no other options available, it is better than nothing.

One of the most successful bilingual programs is the dual-language model.  In a two-way dual-language program, English and Spanish-speakers learn both languages.  While the ratio of Spanish to English is similar to that of a TBE program in the lower grades, by third grade half the day is taught in English and half the day in Spanish.  This continues in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade (and beyond, if possible).  Students are never transitioned into all English classrooms.

The advantages of a dual-language program are numerous.  English-speakers are taught Spanish from a young age, which is a huge benefit in the U.S.  Additionally, both Spanish- and English-speakers are exposed to the “other”; dual-language programs emphasize cultural understanding and multiculturalism.  One of the drawbacks of the TBE model is the fact that Spanish-speaking students are separated for many years which adds to racial and cultural divisions.

Perhaps most important is the fact that in a two-way dual-language program students become fully bi-literate.  Students are learning to read and write in two languages and to maintain those academic skills in both.  Another drawback of the TBE program is the fact that academic Spanish stops around second or third grade, so while students may continue to speak Spanish, they are not actively reading and writing it.

Thomas & Collier's results (click to enlarge)

In the end, the research speaks for itself.  Thomas and Collier’s seminal long-term study of various ESL and bilingual programs shows that the only program to successfully help students reach the 50th percentile mark were the dual-language models.  I am asking you, fellow Persephoneers, to keep these facts in mind when listening to debates regarding the pros and cons of educating students in their native language.


15 replies on “In Defense of Bilingual Education”

As someone who grew up in a small Arizona town where Spanish is the primary language spoken I had no bilingual education until high school. Before then I learned Spanish and English simultaneously at home from my family and was taught in English at school. I remember being in first grade and being an interpreter for my friend who spoke no English. We would have our lessons and then I would sit at his desk with him and explain things to him. I don’t know how things turned out for him but at the time it was a sink or swim method or full immersion. I gather from the post that this about “educating students in their native language”. In our country, where we have such a diverse population, at which point do we draw the line about which languages should be taught? Would this be a new requirement for teachers who already feel stretched, underappreciated and not well compensated? I like the idea of young children learning two languages however I think that the current state of education in this country doesn’t have the infrastructure for it but should definitely strive for it. I also think it’s important to distinguish what we are trying to accomplish. Are we trying to teach kids who already speak English a second language or are we trying to teach native Spanish speakers English? I think these are two very different goals.

As a doctor working in a primarily spanish-speaking neighborhood in NYC, I’ve encountered numerous young women (late teens to twenties), generally from the DR who have finished high school in NYC who are not proficient in english – like, some english comprehension, uncomfortable speaking and unable to read/write. The majority were here in the US since about age 12 or 13, so really did the bulk of high school here. When I’ve asked how they got through high school without knowing english better, they generally say they didn’t have to, they could do most of their classes in spanish – all acknowledging that they were supposed to learn english but didn’t. Do you find this to be a problem with bilingual education in general – people just staying with the laguage they are more comfortable with – or is this just a common outcome in an urban school system which has an 80% spanish speaking population? Or is it particular to people starting bilingual education in high school?

This is great. Bilingual education is so crucial, especially in places like California (my current state), and yet I feel like it is so often on the chopping block or not even part of the conversation. In my home town, there was one dual-language model school at the elementary and middle school level, and the kids there were thriving. We always win when we can work together and reciprocate cultural learning experiences instead of forcing on paradigm onto everyone ever.

Great post, and thank you for writing this! (And being a bilingual educator) I agree with everyone here in it’s sort of baffling that bilingual education would ever be considered anything but good.

Our school district has one Spanish Immersion school (and the kids who need to learn English go there too). It’s pretty amazing. My daughter will attend a school closer to home, but she will at least start Spanish classes at the age of six.

Well said! I’m glad to read about people fighting for bilingual education!

I grew up in Toronto and was in “Extended French” until graduating High School. “Extended French” no longer exists in elementary school (to my knowledge), but was a middle ground in the early years: double the time of French per day as the “English” kids but not all in French like the “Immersion” kids. In high school we did French Language/Lit each year plus at least 2 other subjects in French. I’m rambling on, but I was so glad to have this middle road as I am not strong in science and math and could not have coped with studying them in French but thoroughly enjoyed “Politiques” and “Histoire”.

I love bilingual education and think it is incredibly important. I have seen no convincing arguments that demonstrate that it in any way limits children’s English comprehension. My only hitch is that I keep spelling “government” as “governement” which isn’t correct in any language. :)

If it wasn’t for bilingual education I would have never learned English. I came to the US when I was 12 and was in a bilingual class for about two years. Although, the material was in Spanish, we still had English class and because we were a small class, the teacher was actually able to individually help us. I do agreed that we were separated from what we called ‘mainstream’ students but after the two years in bilingual class, I transitioned into what we called an ‘ESL'(which was a sort of in-between transitioning class) and then into a ‘mainstream’ class. I think that if I had come to this country and have been put into a regular class, I would have never made it past 7th grade. My parents have forced me to speak and write in Spanish, so thankfully I can say I’m fully fluent. Sure, my English grammar is not amazing..but that’s mostly my own laziness.

Great article! My daughter will begin her French Immersion schooling in September and I have been collecting as much info as I can. In our city in Alberta, Canada there is French Immersion (entirely French) and Spanish Bi-lingual programs (50-50). I can’t even imagine why there would be argument against bilingual education. World view anyone?

Standing ovation! Only good things can come from quality bi-lingual education, for every student. Being bi-lingual can increase job opportunities – even and especially for students who don’t go on to a post-HS education. Bi-lingual learning can help comprehension and higher level thinking skills in both languages. For heaven’s sake, being at least bi-lingual is one of the first requirements to joining a fancy government acronym job.

I think a practical stumbling block to the success of these programs is a lack of bi-lingual teachers. I think it’s hard to lure qualified potential teachers into the field when being bi-lingual opens up so many other opportunities, much like the shortages in math and science. Three cheers for teachers like you who did chose education.

Thank you for doing this. I have never, ever understood America’s aversion to bilingual programs and bilingual life. If it benefits children (and is shown to do so in scientific studies) then why on Earth would anybody be upset with it? Bah. It’s so narrow minded it makes me sad.

Agreed. I can’t wrap my head around how it could possibly be bad to educate children to be fluent in two (or more) languages. Bilingual children have every advantage in life – they even learn third and fourth languages more easily than kids who grew up speaking only one language. There is no reason to oppose bilingual education except for xenophobia, bigotry, and completely unproven fears that kids who get to speak their native language sometimes won’t ever integrate (which is nonsense). In fact, the class hypocrisy is pretty astounding in this area; wealthy parents try to get their kids learning French and Mandarin from preschool, after all. But when we’re talking about kids who speak Spanish in the home, suddenly it’s a different story?

On a personal note, I’m forever angry at my mother, who speaks six or seven languages easily (also a formerly bilingual child) for failing to teach me a second language when I was young enough to learn it easily.

Great post!

It is a serious shame that this, and many issues in the teaching profession, have become political issues. The importance of supporting students in their actual learning (ie – math and comprehension skills) while also supporting their English language acquisition is impossible to ignore – so how do so many do this?

Especially surprising and frustrating is that bilingual education is being pulled from states where immigration is highest. Its amazing to me that the people who take issue with Spanish becoming a national language are also the ones who want to pull bilingual education. How are these students to successfully transition into the English speaking American landscape? Perhaps they just don’t want them to.

Thanks again for a great post!

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