Landscape of dual language education in the U.S.

Dual language and immersion education in the U.S.

By Fabrice Jaumont, Ph.D.

The conversation surrounding bilingual education in the United States has often centered around the question of immigration. Historically, bilingual programs in the United States have largely been viewed as a means to aid immigrants’ English language acquisition through a transitional model. Proponents of these programs do not focus on the advantages of mastering two languages, per se. In fact, these particular kinds of bilingual programs rarely place value on sustaining a heritage language, effectively failing to see the many advantages that learning in one’s mother tongue, as well as English, yields in an academic environment. Thankfully, despite this somewhat established view of American bilingual education, attitudes and practices are beginning to change.  
Serving English Language Learners
English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in the United States have traditionally, and understandably, focused on children whose household language is not English. However, as the ESL dominant model of English acquisition has begun to shift to a dual language model, the objectives of these programs are evolving. Now, there are a growing number of dual-language programs created not only to serve English Language Learners, but also students for whom English is a native language. This can be explained by the overwhelming evidence that educating children in multiple languages offers a competitive advantage in the global economy, boosting not only their foreign language skills but also improving their English reading and comprehension, and even their math skills. These programs concentrate on the advantages of bilingualism for all students involved, regardless of the language skills they come in with.

Dual language programs in the United States are available in a wide range of languages. While English is always one of the two languages taught, programs can be found with target languages from Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, French, Japanese, German, Russian, Portuguese, Arabic, and Italian to Cantonese, Hmong, Bengali, Urdu, Creole, Cup’ik, and Ojibwe, to name but a few. Dual language programs even exist in American Sign Language. Each of the languages offered reflects the fiber of that particular community, which may include ethnic concentrations, commercial interests, or simply a desire to provide children a competitive advantage. In creating these programs, each community can make the United States, as a whole, more competitive academically and economically.
The terminology of bilingual education
Bilingual education in the United States is multifaceted. With no federal law legislating the content of education, each school district controls decisions relating to its own pedagogy, while standards that affect curriculum development are defined at the state level. The resulting number and wide variety of bilingual programs can perplex parents and educators who wish to introduce similar programs to their communities. When discussing these programs, it is necessary to provide clear definitions for commonly employed terminology. Below are the definitions provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition:

  • Two-way dual language programs (also known as two-way immersion programs): English Language Learners who are fluent in the partner language and English-speaking peers are integrated to receive instruction in both English and the partner language.
  • One-way dual language programs: Students from predominantly one language group receive instruction in both English and a partner language. One-way dual language programs may serve predominantly English Language Learners (also known as developmental or maintenance bilingual programs); predominantly English-speaking students (also known as one-way/world language immersion programs); or predominantly students with a family background or cultural connection to the partner language (also known as heritage or native language programs).There are also many subtle variations that shape each bilingual program, such as subjects taught and the duration of the program. With such a wide range of programs and languages, you are sure to find a model that works for your community and serves your local population in the best way possible.
You can find other terms used in the dual language education and their definitions in the section "Term definitions of bilingual education".
The dual language approach
Dual language programs are now beginning to thrive. Georgia, Delaware, and North Carolina, among other states, have expanded their investments in dual language immersion; Minnesota has revised its budget and educational policies to benefit young dual language learners; New York and Oregon are changing their strategic approaches to long-term academic outcomes for bilingual children; legislators in California and Massachusetts have recently overturned their respective bans on bilingual education, and the list goes on. The fact that bilingual education is once again becoming a political issue, this time with overwhelming support, is an indicator of the success of these programs.

Uniquely, Utah boasts the third highest number of dual language programs in the United States with approximately 140 schools serving 34,000 students, as of 2017. An anomaly of sorts, bilingual programs in Utah—a state geographically isolated from important economic centers—have thrived despite a lack of diverse linguistic communities. Foreign language immersion in Utah was conceived, championed, and implemented thanks to the vision of strong political figures who identified a need for language skills in business, government, and education. In 2008, the Utah Senate passed the International Education Initiative, providing funding for Utah schools to begin dual language immersion programs in Chinese, French, and Spanish. German, and Portuguese were later added to the curricular offerings, and Arabic and Russian are in the planning stages for the near future. 
Hopes for the future
As globalization pushes our world closer together than ever before, we must reflect on our competitiveness at an international level. Knowledge of multiple languages and cultures can give Americans that edge, as cohorts upon cohorts of high school and college graduates are capable of entering the workforce better equipped for the global market. Bilingual education has been proven time and time again to produce incredible results, but the field is stalled in the United States by a lack of mobilization on the national level fueled by disproved myths and taboos. The Bilingual Revolution is needed now more than ever to establish the prominent position of bilingual education, for posterity’s sake.

If you are interested in learning more about bilingualism, its benefits, the current state of bilingual education in the U.S., or the practical aspects of raising multilingual children take a look at the annotated bibliography that we have compiled:
Fabrice Jaumont FJ

Fabrice Jaumont, Ph.D. is international educator, researcher, and author. This article is excerpted from his book The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education is in Two Languages (TBR Books, 2017).