Historically, immigrant children were often miscategorized as needing special education services, and as a result, the dropout rate among them became much higher than that of the general population. In order to better serve the needs of non-native English speakers, bilingual education programs were created.
The following offers a glimpse into what bilingual education entails, and why it is sometimes considered a controversial form of instruction.
What is Bilingual Education?
Bilingual education is a broad term that can encompass a variety of educational approaches.
According to the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), bilingual education “refers to approaches in the classroom that use the native languages of English language learners (ELLs) for instruction.” The goals of this form of instruction include assisting students in increasing their English proficiency, keeping their native culture and languages intact, helping them to adjust to a foreign environment and promoting academic success.
This is certainly not a new trend in education. As PBS explains, bilingual education became particularly popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was based on the premise that if students were initially taught in their native languages, they were less likely to regress academically. The goal became to gradually immerse students in English speaking classrooms as they became more proficient with the language.
Since the ‘60s, educators have continued to debate whether a gradual immersion or “sink or swim” approach seems to work best for students. It is not an easily defined issue, but one that has many schools of thought and approaches.
According to the University of Michigan, there are six main approaches to bilingual or multilingual education. They are:
1. Bilingual education:
Students are given instruction in two or more languages. The amount of instruction given in each language varies from school to school.
Non-native English speakers are given instruction completely in English, regardless of how long the student has been learning English.
3. Two-way bilingual education:
Native and non-native English speakers are placed in the same classes. Instruction is given in English as well as the other native language, with the goal of all students becoming proficient in both.
4. English as a Second Language (ESL):
Students spend part of the day in regular classes and part of the day in ESL classes. In the ESL classes, they receive focused instruction in mastering English.
This is often targeted towards native English speakers who want to master a foreign language. Teachers deliver instruction in a foreign language for the entire day.
6. Three language systems:
Also called trilingual education, students are initially taught in one language and a second language is integrated early on. After students begin to master the first two languages, a third is introduced with the hopes of students becoming fluent in all three by graduation.
Benefits of Bilingual Education
NABE describes the positive benefits of bilingual education in an ERIC Digest article by Stephen Krashen. Younger children need to be able to read to understand language so allowing them to read in their own language promotes the advancement of their literacy skills and the ability to translate written and spoken English.
The National Latino Children’s Institute (NLCI) considers quality bilingual programs essential to the academic success of non-native English speakers. The programs allow English Language Learners to stay on the same academic level as their peers, whereas a “sink or swim” approach can cause students to fall far behind. These programs also promote the celebration of diversity and are more inclusive of non-native English speakers’ families and parents who may have limited English proficiency. Preserving students’ native languages while they become proficient in English can also give them an advantage later in life. Being bilingual or multilingual is an asset when it comes to gainful employment.
Drawbacks of Bilingual Education
Not everyone agrees with the efficacy of bilingual approaches. In an article from The Atlantic, Rosalie Pedalino Porter argues that children immersed in regular English speaking classrooms do not have lower self-esteem or higher stress than students in bilingual programs.
The rise in bilingual education programs since the ‘60s has also not corresponded to a significantly lower dropout rate among children of immigrants. In fact, when a large number of Latino and Asian parents were polled, the majority preferred instruction in English. Most were in favor of English Language Learners receiving extra help, but in the form of an ESL teacher. Ultimately, critics argue that the best practice is inclusion.
The Future of Bilingual Education
Schools continue to be squeezed by a suffering economy, which has been detrimental to many foreign language programs. Few schools can provide foreign language instruction at the elementary school level, when students are most receptive to acquiring languages. This makes two-way bilingual classes difficult to establish, but some schools have been able to implement instruction in several languages.
In Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools offers partial immersion programs in French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. Similar programs have been offered in Connecticut schools. As more schools recognize the value of being fluent in several languages, Americans in the future might just all be multilingual.