The need for dual language inmersión

In a public high school I attended in Miami, where Spanish is heard throughout the hallways, why was a sophomore girl kicked out of her pre-calculus class for asking her classmate a question in Spanish? The teacher had an “English only” policy. The girl was unable to understand the material because she did not understand the language. She was thrown into an English-only school to sink or swim and, at the age of 16, she was still struggling to stay afloat.

English ClassKheel Center, Cornell University

English class for Spanish-speaking International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union members.


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So what is to be done about non-native English speakers in the nation’s school systems?

The ideal: dual-language education or two-way immersion. The reality: poor bilingual education systems. We must place emphasis back on language — from English grammar and vocabulary to foreign languages. Language is the basis of communication; without communication, there is no understanding. Instead of thinking of bilingualism as a division between two languages, identities, and perspectives, we should think of it as a coming together.

Dual language immersion programs are the best way to improve communication skills while leveraging the advantages of bilingualism and cultural diversity. Students who successfully complete a dual language immersion program graduate fully bilingual, proficient in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

These programs begin as early as preschool and evenly split instruction for all students between two languages, regardless of students’ home or first language. Both English learners and speakers benefit from the program. The programs often appear in communities where immigrant populations are the majority or English speakers want their children to be bilingual. Dual language immersion programs are primarily found as a Spanish-English combination but have diversified in the past decade to include Chinese, Japanese, French, Korean, and Navajo.

This is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the 1960s bilingualism was widely considered to be a disadvantage. Studies today, however, demonstrate the opposite. Bilingualism offers not only cognitive benefits, but also a marketable advantage. This new view on bilingualism prompted educators to respond to the influx of Cuban refugees in Dade County, Fla., and implement the first two-way immersion program in 1963.

Following the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and a rise in the population of people learning the English language, two-way immersion programs have expanded to California, Illinois, New York, Colorado, Virginia, and other states. Formerly, English language learner populations were concentrated in a few states, but today their numbers are growing in almost all states. California has the largest English language learner population — nearly 2 million, or over 25 percent of California’s K-12 students. Texas, New York, Florida, Arizona, and Illinois round out the top six.

Despite these large numbers, however, there are only around 400 two-way immersion programs in the country. The fact is, it is unrealistic to offer these programs at all schools — especially because there is not a need. And those schools and areas that do require bilingual classes typically fail to implement a productive program across the board.

As a result, immersion programs are not always successful. It is not uncommon to find a teacher in an immigrant community whose own English skills are not developed enough to conduct the entire class in English and resorts to his native language for the sake of comfort. Insufficient enforcement of the 50-50 language division leads to inefficient programs. The same goes for providing quality training in the minority language.

Even worse, English as a Second Language pull-out programs are the go-to arrangement in most schools across the country. In these programs, language minority children are withdrawn from the normal curriculum to take compensatory English classes. Although ESL classes are supposed to provide students with the necessary language skills to conquer their academic courses, they are being taken out of the English environment and put into a space that encourages interaction in the minority language. ESL support classes are considered preferable to not having any compensatory classes at all and are usually offered through the high school level. The problem is that ESL students become marginalized and segregated from their English-speaking peers for large portions of the school day and often fall behind in the curriculum as a result.

It is not only students learning the English language who are disadvantaged by the language education systems in place. On average, students from the United States do not graduate from high school with the language skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. Although the majority of universities require at least two years of a foreign language, that is hardly comparable to being immersed. Does anyone remember the Latin he took in eighth grade? Probably not, because he switched to Chinese in ninth grade and then was done with his language requirement. English speakers only have access to a second language through weak foreign language classes and even those are not taught with immersion in mind or taken beyond a pro forma requirement.

Regardless of language, students respond best to teachers who set high expectations. So why are language expectations set so terrifyingly low in the United States? The United States does not specify a national language — we are a country rich with languages. Although our de facto national language is English, children educated in Europe speak English better than many children born in this country. We need to shape our language education like our other subjects, increasing levels of difficulty and understanding from kindergarten through high school.

Every student should desire and require a foreign language, and an English language learner should have access to something more substantial than ESL support classes. Two-way immersion schools could be the answer we’re looking for. Not only could they substantially improve the language skills of both native and non-native English speakers, but they could also provide opportunities for the cross-cultural learning and understanding so desperately needed in this country.

Jody Ellenby is a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Music and a music and theatre teacher. Her passion lies in developing interdisciplinary arts education programs.