Ask Reading Kingdom: What are the benefits of dual language programs?

Dual language programs have undergone a major transformation over the past few decades. They have their roots in the bilingual programs initiated in the 1960’s which were aimed at children from immigrant families who were not proficient in English. The goal was to provide instruction in their native languages while they were learning English. In other words, the programs did not offer them a new language but rather focused on using the children’s native language.

Over the past dozen or so years, these programs have fallen out of favor as they have been charged with isolating the students in remedial classrooms with watered down instruction. Several states such as California, Arizona and Massachusetts have moved to English language immersion where there is intense instruction in English through most or all of the day.

At the same time, bilingual education has had a makeover as many American families realize the value of being fluent in languages other than English. These programs are termed dual language programs. In Delaware and Utah, for example, statewide initiatives to increase dual-language education have largely been designed to increase bilingualism among English speakers. In San Francisco, there are successful programs in languages such as Mandarin and Japanese.

These programs offer wide-ranging benefits such as:

Better academic performance. In Houston, for example, native English speakers who had been in the two-way dual-language programs for four years scored between the 63rd and 70th percentiles in total reading scores on the Stanford 9, whereas the scores of native English speakers in the mainstream hovered around the 50th percentile. When tested in Spanish, the dual-language native English speakers scored between the 65th and 87th percentiles at the end of grades 2–5, with an average score equivalent to the 76th percentile.

Closing the achievement gap. There has long been a gap in achievement with native English speakers performing at higher levels than English language learners (children whose native language is not English). In 2004, an 18 year longitudinal study from George Mason University of 23 school districts and 15 states found that dual language immersion closes the achievement gap between English language learners and native speakers of English.

Enhanced language performance. Students in dual language programs develop full oral and reading and writing proficiency in two languages. This allows them to see their first language in a comparative perspective, which in turn helps them analyze and refine their language use.

Brain benefits. Cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok has found that people who regularly use two languages tend to perform better on executive function tasks and maintain better cognitive functioning with age. Bilingualism is also associated with a five to six year delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms after diagnosis.

A broadening of cultural horizons: Students in dual language programs develop positive attitudes about students of other language and cultural backgrounds. For example, it has been found that students in these programs show greater diversity in the friendship choices that they make and the dual language experience leads them to be more comfortable interacting with members of other ethno-cultural groups. The benefits for engaging in and working in a global society are obvious.

Parents recognize these benefits and they are keen on expanding the programs so that they are widely available. The expansion is happening—but not at a sufficient pace. The biggest obstacles are the lack of sufficient personnel and funding. Hopefully, this will change as the nation realizes the payoff that these programs yield. As Richard Riley, former head of the Department of Education said, “We need to invest in these kinds of programs. In an international economy, knowledge, and knowledge of language, is power.”

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