While roughly half the global population speaks at least two languages, only about 20% of U.S. residents can say the same.
Dual-language immersion programs, in which academic content is taught in two languages, help children become bilingual and offer a host of other benefits.
“The programs are really, I think, a silver bullet to ensure that all students achieve success in school and in life,” says Martha Hernandez, executive director of the language advocacy group Californians Together.
Dual-language immersion programs facilitate biliteracy — the ability to speak, listen, read and write proficiently in two languages — by taking advantage of young children’s propensity for language acquisition. Most programs start in kindergarten and follow children through elementary school, and some extend into middle or high school.
Classes generally consist of a half-and-half mix of native English speakers and native speakers of the target language. David Rogers, executive director of Dual Language Education New Mexico, a nonprofit that supports these programs, wrote in an email that this mix of students allows children to learn from and help one another. Spanish is the secondary language in about 80% of all dual-language programs, but there are also offerings in about two dozen other languages, including Chinese, French, Japanese, Russian and Hmong.
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Hernandez says there are two particularly popular models of dual-language immersion: the 90/10 model and the 50/50 model.
In the first model, 90% of instruction is conducted in the target language during the first year, with the remaining 10% taught in English. With each academic year, the ratio of instruction in English to instruction in the target language increases slightly, until instruction is 50/50.
In the 50/50 model, coursework is half in English and half in the target language throughout the program.
More than half of all public school dual-language immersion programs in the U.S. are located in five states: California, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Utah, and many are in major metropolitan areas. Parents can search for a program on the website duallanguageschools.org, which features nearly 5,000 programs across 43 states.
Research has shown that dual-language programs are an effective way to educate English-language learners, but they also offer benefits for native English speakers. Here are just a few reasons to consider dual-language immersion:
— Biliteracy is good for your brain.
— Learning a language is easier for young children.
— English learners succeed while maintaining their native language.
— Students build strong social connections and cultural awareness.
Biliteracy Is Good For Your Brain
Learning a second language can be difficult at first. But the early challenges are no match for the benefits later on in life. Numerous studies have shown that individuals who are exposed to two languages at an early age, on average, outperform their monolingual peers on tests of cognitive function in adolescence and adulthood.
“There’s a lot of research on the advantages of biliteracy, in terms of the brain and cognition,” Hernandez says. “Your executive functions are heightened — that means attention control, working memory, things like that.”
In the process of honing one’s skills in a second language, individuals also improve their memory, problem-solving skills and their ability to more easily learn additional languages.
Research has also shown that students in dual-language immersion programs — both native English speakers and English-language learners — do better academically than their peers in traditional classrooms. This is particularly true when it comes to reading, though studies have also reported increased achievement in math and science.
Learning a Language Is Easier for Young Children
The best time to learn a second language is “when you’re very, very young,” Hernandez says.
While the toddler years might be ideal, research shows that exposure to a second language any time before the onset of puberty increases the likelihood of attaining proficiency.
Dual-language programs generally don’t allow new students after first grade, says Brandon Locke, director of world languages and immersion programs for the Anchorage School District in Alaska. By starting students early and allowing them to develop their skills throughout their academic career, these programs help students achieve a high degree of proficiency in both languages.
English Learners Succeed While Maintaining Their Native Language
For English-language learners, enrolling in a traditional school program may put them at a disadvantage.
“(Immersion) is better for the native speakers of, say, Spanish than to go to a monolingual English school, where they’re potentially going to be behind in English, while having all these Spanish skills that they’re not able to use,” Locke says.
Dual-language immersion helps to minimize the achievement gap between English learners and native English speakers that often arises in English-only schooling, Hernandez says.
In addition to falling behind in a monolingual English environment, she says, some English learners may even lose the ability to speak fluently in their native language as time goes on.
“The results of language loss are really, really heartbreaking,” she says. “We see these families where the parent is speaking their home language and the child is speaking English. And they aren’t able to build this bond because they’re not speaking the same language.”
Dual-language immersion programs help English learners develop their skills in their native language while also learning English more quickly than students in English-only programs.
Students Build Strong Social Connections and Cultural Awareness
Because dual-language immersion programs generally consist of an even mix of native speakers of both languages, students from both groups help one another as they acquire the other language. This shared learning allows students to form close connections with each other, Hernandez says.
That interaction can also help native English speakers develop a strong sense of cultural awareness.
Rogers, whose own children attended dual-language immersion programs, says his children have formed bonds with a diverse group of people that they may not have been able to communicate with otherwise.
“Not only are they proficient in the language, but they are socio-culturally competent and have a wide variety of relationships and friends that come from very different cultural backgrounds, compared to our own family,” he says.
And Hernandez says these programs “open doors up around the world,” as students become able to more effectively engage with other cultures using their linguistic skills.
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