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A Bilingual Revolution is Underway

© Jonas Cuénin

As our world becomes more connected through technology, global competitiveness expands. Familiarity with multiple languages and cultures gives individuals a competitive edge. Multilingual skills provide pervasive opportunities, particularly as successful careers require international communication, which is essential for our children to compete in the workplace. Several states have recently recognized the economic advantages of a multilingual workforce. Businesses understand that the current demands of international trade require this proficiency, particularly for states that are geographically isolated from vital economic centers. In this light, the ultimate goal for schools should be to educate the next generation to function in a global economy. There remains a majority of leaders, educators, and skeptics who renounce the value in that goal. Yet states like Utah and even Delaware — where half of U.S. corporations are incorporated — are realizing that they are losing business as a result of poor language skills.

Our global economy triggers complex geopolitics, and in turn, nations need more multilingual citizens. Alabama, home of a Japanese car manufacturing plant, has established several Japanese language supplementary schools to help facilitate the education of Japanese expatriate children. The state intended to require proof of citizenship or permanent residency for enrollment into these programs. This decision was quickly withdrawn, as the children of many of the car plant employees and senior management did not have U.S. citizenship, and the car maker threatened to relocate the plant if the state of Alabama were to discriminate against them. The community spoke clearly about its needs.

For many communities and educators, established values, data, and forecasts dictate the programs, as well as the languages. It makes more sense for many communities to offer Mandarin/English than Bengali/English, although either option would probably benefit children developmentally and academically. Some communities offer a modern language (beginning in elementary school), and then introduce a classical language (in middle or high school). My local districts offer combinations of French/English, Mandarin/English, Japanese/English, Polish/English, German/English, and Spanish/English at the elementary level, and then expand to other languages (including classical) in higher grades. In some districts, students can also opt to take online instruction if the system does not offer the language. It is defined by a community’s vision and needs for the future.

For instance, the craze for dual language programs in New York’s French-speaking community can be explained in various ways: often at the beginning of the initiative, families do not always have the same reasons to enroll their children in these bilingual programs. In New York, recent Francophone arrivals from Africa or the Caribbean aim to remain fluent within the family to perpetuate their cultural heritage, as well as to facilitate their eventual return to their countries of origin in case of expatriation. While fluency in French accelerates a child’s English language skills, it also has an indirect effect on the integration of immigrant children into U.S. society. Children in these classes show an interest in their heritage and are inclined to turn to their elders to learn about their past.[i]

At a time when other types of bilingual education are on the decline, dual language programs are flourishing. The programs are showing promise in their mission to promote biliteracy and positive cross-cultural attitudes in our increasingly multilingual world. Educators acknowledge the benefits for both English-language learners and those fluent in English. With no federal law legislating the content of education, each school has made decisions on its own pedagogy. With the rising perception that dual language programs are more effective in educating both native English speakers and English Language Learners in the long run, the number and variety of bilingual programs can perplex parents or educators willing to introduce these programs. Providing uniform definitions and terminology about these programs is critical for the dissemination and expansion of dual language education. In the United States, most parents and school principals need to understand the different models of bilingual education. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education now provides these answers.[ii]

The duration of the program also depends on the school. Some offer kindergarten through 12th grade bilingual education, although this is rare. Most programs cease bilingual teaching at 6th grade, due to a lack of resources. The number of hours taught to children depends on the grade level as well as school policy. Researchers unanimously agree that dual language programs are very effective and should be offered by every school district.[iii] While the educational model of each school differs, each is defined by its distinctive community, a trend that can be observed geographically.

In the United States, bilingual education programs first emerged in the 1960s to service the needs of Spanish-speaking students in Florida and French-speaking students in Maine. By the 1980s, bilingual magnet schools were established in cities like Tucson, Arizona, to help desegregate schools by attracting white students to predominantly minority schools. In the 1990s and early 2000s, bilingual programs came under attack for their lack of effectiveness in teaching English to immigrants. Ballot campaigns succeeded in banning transitional bilingual education programs in California, Massachusetts, and Arizona. Still, schools found loopholes and began adopting dual language models in various forms.

Georgia, Delaware, North Carolina, and other states have expanded their investments in dual language immersion. Minnesota has updated its spending and effective policies for young dual language learners, and New York and Oregon are changing their strategic approach to the long-term academic outcome for bilingual children. Utah has a concentration of dual language programs as well. The model of dual language education that is flourishing today in the United States focuses on bilingual education that serves children of various linguistic backgrounds. Not solely focused on the children who have a mother tongue, the models are open to children only familiar with the English language and work to introduce them to foreign languages from a very early age. The way the model is structured is that students spend half of their school time in English and the other half in a target language.

Bilingual education is up for debate again in California and Massachusetts, where legislators have proposed overturning their respective bans. The fact that this is once again becoming a political issue indicates that these programs have been successful. Representative of the times, the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs in the U.S. Department of Education was renamed the Office of English Language Acquisition. There are many factors that have led to the rekindled notion that more language is needed within our culture. The resurgence was clearly fueled by population movements, changes in immigration law, and the refugee act. Other contributing factors include the situation in Cuba in the early 1960s and the resulting immigration flux, 9/11, and the inflow of unaccompanied Central American minors. All of these events have added to the demand and evolution of bilingual education.

Bilingual education must be concerned with monolingual English-speaking children having the opportunity to become proficient by starting early in kindergarten and first grade. It is important to keep in mind the history and to understand that bilingual education is a social justice and equity issue in maintaining the value of whole languages. Many U.S. students enter universities at the low or intermediate level of language proficiency, despite years of prior studies. Dual language education is about our perception of language instruction and learning for monolingual American industry.

New York, for instance, focuses mainly on English language learners, although the current administration is revisiting this model. The mandate in New York State for these dual language programs is to teach these students to assimilate into American culture. This involves half of the students speaking English and the other half in the same classroom speaking the target language. This is not the case in other states that often offer foreign immersion programs where English-speaking, monolingual children will learn a foreign language and all subjects through a foreign language.

Before moving to New York in early 2001, I was the director of a private bilingual school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time, parents would pay twenty thousand dollars a year for a bilingual education. When we looked at public schools, none of the English speakers were even considered for the programs. It is uncommon to hear about children wanting to become bilingual, simply because it is a good educational resource. The field is impeded in discussions that no longer match what parents want for their children. A revolution is needed to make this topic evolve in this country and elsewhere. Parents hold the keys to this revolution.

All over the world, new bilingual programs grow in response to the persistence of parents. For the majority of schools, dual language programs were created because of the school leadership’s interest in bilingual education. Motivated parents have supported the implementation of these programs by making financial contributions, raising funds, or volunteering their time. This is not only an American phenomenon. In France — where bilingual education is currently heavily regulated by state programs — the first bilingual programs began to appear in 2002, after parents formed grassroots associations in Alsace, promoting German/French bilingual education in schools. In addition, the increasing demand of these parents has led school authorities to open bilingual programs in public schools. In Ireland, for example, parents fought for bilingual programs in both Irish and English, even though the state supported the teaching of Irish as a second language in schools. Similarly in Canada, a parent organization called “Parents For French” has become an important force in the growth of bilingual programs throughout the nation.

Parents initiate many dual language programs, however, it can sometimes be difficult to garner the support of principals and teachers for bilingual education in the schools that will sustain these programs. Often these administrators are themselves monolinguals and are not necessarily knowledgeable about bilingual education. This makes advocating a challenge for parents in many countries and demonstrates how crucial it is to make sure that everyone involved in the implementation of dual language programs is knowledgeable about bilingual education and bilingualism.

In several contexts of education, immersion and international education is too often reserved for children of the affluent. However, the community of public bilingual schools that has developed in New York and in other cities provides access to quality programs to children of diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Programs in the United States build on the traditional models of bilingual education programs that are the result of the work of activists during the Civil Rights Movement, which focus on teaching children whose mother tongue is not English and who need stronger support to develop proficiency in the language. Despite criticism, these programs offer equal chances for all children to succeed in American society.

For the last ten years, linguistic communities in New York City have created dual language programs in Spanish, French, Japanese, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, Arabic, Mandarin, and Korean. These organizations are motivated to maintain the children’s linguistic heritage, which is susceptible to being lost due to the lack of exposure to it in their everyday, strictly English environment. These families would like for schools to put more value on their children’s heritage language and culture to help them to make their bilingualism an asset in their lives.

An increasing number of American families who only speak English at home also value the benefits of bilingualism, biliteracy, and biculturalism. In response to research showing that dual language immersion students tend to perform better academically, particularly in reading and math, monolingual American parents ask that schools help them to develop multilingualism in their children as early as possible, preferably through dual language or foreign language immersion programs. Usually, when parents demand that schools provide this kind of bilingual education, it becomes a true revolution.

Families find that in order to preserve their heritage language, public schools can help in doing so and turn bilingualism into an asset for society. The truth of the matter is that these languages cannot be fully developed or be sustained at home, as language loss and assimilation occurs rapidly. Of course, after-school and weekend programs exist, but they are not as efficient as daily dual language programs. However, for these daily programs to succeed, they require strong partnerships within a community — commitment from schools’ leadership, the installation of qualified, dedicated teachers, and ceaseless involvement from parents at all levels. If this occurs successfully, schools hosting these programs can benefit from diversity of both the population that they serve and their teaching staff, enabling them to incorporate positive linguistic and cultural differences into pedagogy. When all these elements are in place, a true bilingual revolution is underway.

[i] Jaumont, F. & Ross, J. (2012). “Building Bilingual Communities: New York’s French Bilingual Revolution” in Ofelia García, Zeena Zakharia, and Bahar Otcu, (editors). Bilingual Community Education and Multilingualism. Beyond Heritage Languages in a Global City (pp.232-246). Bristol, U.K.: Multilingual Matters.
[ii] U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition (2015). Dual Language Education Programs: Current State Policies and Practices, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/Dual language-Education-Programs-Current-State-Policies-April-2015.pdf
[iii] Thomas, W. P., & Collier, V. P. "The Astounding Effectiveness of Dual Language Education for All". NABE Journal of Research and Practice, 2:1. Winter 2004. Retrieved from http://hillcrest.wacoisd.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_345/File/Publications/ELL/Dual%20language%20survey.pdf