Teacher Karen Farquharson says America needs to step into the 21st century’s global society by supporting dual language programs that produce bilingual, bicultural citizens.

Americans are amazed by people who can speak two languages, and dazzled by polyglots who navigate more than two languages successfully. Yet, unlike schools in most of the world, our schools turn out monolingual students, even going so far as to take immigrant students and strip them of their first language in order to replace it with English.

Why don’t we step into the 21st century’s global society by implementing an educational model that puts American children on a level playing field with the rest of the world, a world in which most grow up fluent in more than one language?

Dual language education does precisely this, and is growing in popularity in spite English-only and transitional bilingual programs that seem almost designed to prevent bilingualism in America’s young people.  Indeed, the explicit goal of early transition bilingual programs, the most common “bilingual” program in the state, is to transition into academic English as quickly as possible, using the minority language only as a crutch until it can be discarded for English.

Not only do dual language programs focus on creating bilingual and bicultural citizens, they also integrate students by socioeconomic status and cultural background at levels unheard of in any other school model in America.  This is an important side effect in a world in which our schools are now more segregated by race and economic status than they have been since the historic Brown vs. the Board of Education decision ended “separate but equal” policies more than 50 years ago.

Dual language programs can close achievement gaps

Dual immersion programs do not just grow bilingual and biliterate students, some models have been proven to do what no other educational model in America can – close the achievement gap between English language learners and native English speakers.

Two-way immersion dual language presupposes a student population nearly evenly divided between native English speakers and second-language speakers.  Denver and other metro area districts use a variety of dual language models ranging from 50-50 to 70-30 but research by Thomas and Collier has shown that 90-10 models get the best results.

The 90-10 dual language, or two-way immersion, model begins with 90 percent of classroom time for all students spent in the minority language, and transitions to 50 percent of the time in the minority language and 50 percent of the time in the “language of power” (typically English) by third or fourth grade. This specific model has been shown to result in above-average academic achievement in English and in the minority language (typically Spanish) for all students, including low-income students, language minority students and native English speakers of all stripes.

In closing the achievement gap between English language learners and native English speakers, dual language programs can lower drop-out rates, teen-pregnancy rates, juvenile delinquency and a host of other anti-social behaviors associated with school failure. In addition, the 90-10 model grows students who are ready to take on the increasingly globalized world through mastery of not only two world languages, but also an ability to successfully navigate the world as one from within a diverse community of people.

Challenges to starting dual language schools can be overcome

There are challenges to starting these schools:  The student population needs to be approximately half and half as far as language backgrounds go, which does not happen all by itself.

In addition, parents and teachers need to be supportive of a less “traditional” approach to education, and many teachers and staff members should be bilingual. Clearly, adhering to the best practices for dual language programs while also fulfilling all other requirements in any district or state can be difficult and demanding.

However, as teachers, parents and citizens, we should be pushing for access to 90-10 dual language education. In an age of JOBS, JOBS, JOBS and Reforms, Reforms, Reforms, this is an area where conservatives and liberals should be able to come together. Rather than growing one group of monolinguals accustomed to homogenous communities and experiences, and another group either forced into monolingualism as an act of self-defense, or marginalized for its use of a heritage language, we should raise a bilingual and bicultural society. Everybody else is already doing it.

For more information, facts and figures on two-way immersion or dual language, go to the Center for Applied Linguistics. If you feel passionately that dual language education should be an option for more students in Aurora, please visit our school website to learn how you can get involved, volunteer or donate.