The high and rising number of students in American schools who do not speak English as their first language creates an educational challenge that is too often addressed with politics rather than science. Many education advocates propose providing courses in a student’s native language until their English proficiency allows them to enter standard classes, often several years later. Others extol English immersion of some type, either assisted or free-fall. The social, cultural, and scientific reality is that a more nuanced approach is both possible and necessary in order to ensure that all American students can flourish in an English-mediated academic setting. I believe that elements of bilingual education ought to be more widely and openly embraced in light of overwhelming evidence supporting its advantages, which have been consistently shown to benefit all students regardless of linguistic and cultural background.
The impetus for reform is derived from the fact that a large proportion of immigrant students from under-privileged socioeconomic backgrounds who speak another language at home (especially Spanish) do not compare academically with their monolingual counterparts and drop out at a disproportionately high rate. None of the commonly advocated policies have yet remedied this problem, largely because they fail to acknowledge the main thing underlying these statistics—that these students struggle in the academic environment because they face unique linguistic and cultural challenges unknown to their monolingual counterparts, which are not properly addressed by educational policies. It is not bilingual education per se, but rather the inherent inequality that exists in both the common systems of bilingual education now, which perpetuate segregation within schools, and universal English immersion programs, which too often overlook the unique challenges and opportunities of young bilingual learners, that causes the problem.
Numerous studies have identified multiple advantages of bilingualism that are relevant to academic success, especially in the areas of language and general cognition. For instance, contrary to popular belief, educating students in their mother tongue has been shown to have a positive effect on English development, as well. This pertains especially to bilingual students speaking two historically related languages such as Spanish and English. Through the “cross language transfer” of phonological awareness, young bilinguals who gain reading proficiency in one language are able to make inferences about the other. Bilingualism also brings meta-linguistic awareness, or the conscious awareness of the fundamental functioning of language, which is immensely beneficial to both literacy development in young students and future language learning. With regard to general cognition, bilingualism has been shown to enable significantly better executive function, including mental control processes such as thought inhibition and the ability to disengage attention, both of which are robust indicators of academic success.
In other words, a strong theoretical case can be made for bilingual education for all students. With greater command of their native languages, young bilinguals in particular can develop language skills in both languages and reap the associated benefits, both in terms of cognition and of better understanding of academic content. On the other hand, young native English-speaking students who are provided with immersive foreign language instruction in a bilingual environment can also benefit from their own budding bilingualism. As these students undergo similar challenges to the ones bilingual students constantly face, they can help create a more egalitarian and accepting school environment where all students, regardless of linguistic and cultural background, can have a more equal opportunity for academic achievement.
Even with the cognitive and linguistic benefits of further developing proficiency in their native language, non-native English speakers must learn English quickly or risk academic isolation. This goal must be achieved through sheltered English instruction—academic subjects taught in patient English coupled with English as a Second Language instruction, all taught by bilingual teachers capable of providing full support to both students and parents. Schools should also foster the consistent development of educators who, even if not fluently bilingual, are aware of the linguistic and cultural challenges faced by some of their students and have reached proficiency in a second language. Implementing such a policy would be a tremendous challenge, but the positive learning outcomes that would result would be immensely worthwhile.
In order to realize any change in the U.S., the whole debate on bilingual education has to be decoupled from the often-vitriolic social and political discourse. In Sweden, for instance, strong support is given to programs that provide mother tongue language instruction, despite public political debates over immigration. With such support, immigrant students are empowered to learn fluent Swedish and enter mainstream academic and economic society, while Swedish students, who are themselves learning foreign languages including English, are also able to reap the benefits of bilingualism. As such, unlike in the U.S., the benefits conferred by bilingualism are embraced in the Swedish system in a manner that does not confound the role of Swedish as the official social and academic language. Given the proven linguistic, cognitive, social, and cultural advantages of bilingualism, there is serious need for the U.S. to look at the issue objectively and scientifically and to strive for an optimal policy of bilingual education that would allow all students to reach their potential in the mainstream academic setting.
Charlotte C. Chang ’12 is a Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.