The Pros and Cons of Bilingual Education for Kids
Bilingual education refers to teaching academic content in both a native and second language. While that may seem like a simple definition, you’ll soon see—it’s a bit more complicated than that!
Bilingual education dates back to the 19th century when communities in the U.S. began to teach European immigrant children. Usually, teachers gave lessons in other languages, such as German, Dutch, French, and Spanish.
Even though it’s not new, this system of education is rather controversial. Its supporters and critics both present convincing arguments as to why it should be or not be enacted.
Amid this controversy, I’ve done enough personal and academic research to know that I wholeheartedly support bilingual education. Let me share with you what I’ve learned from both sides and give you an idea of why I think the way I do.
What Does Bilingual Education Look Like?
Various program models exist in bilingual education. Traditional programs for English Language Learners (ELLs) focus on helping students transition from their native language to English.
On the other hand, dual-language or two-way immersion programs are currently popular in public schools. They provide instruction across subjects to both English natives and ELLs, in both English and in a target language.
Historically, early exit or transitional bilingual education involved heavy use of the home language when the child entered school, followed by the exclusive use of the school language, typically in English-only classrooms. The idea was to assimilate the student as quickly as possible. In contrast, maintenance bilingual education incorporates the school language into some subject areas and the target language into others.
My Take on Bilingual Education
Personally, I believe that bilingual education is important. In 2006, I completed an emergency teacher certification program and later worked as a bilingual classroom teacher in Austin, Texas as well as Guatemala for nine years. And, I am a proud bilingual mom of a 7-year-old bilingual daughter!
My experience is that bilingual education is complex, challenging, and necessary.
As an educator, every class I taught consisted of a wide range of students with different levels of bilingualism and biliteracy, including native English speakers and native Spanish speakers with little to no English skills.. This made it challenging to reach each individual student at their level, especially when I was the lone teacher in a classroom of 20+ students.
Gratefully, in the education of my daughter, which has been a mix of homeschooling and Waldorf-style education in school settings with much smaller class sizes, her skills in Spanish and English have flourished as she learns to read and write in both languages.
A Summary of the Ongoing Bilingual Education Debate
Some people believe that exposing children to two languages is harmful and confusing to the children. Both positive and negative publicity has come out over the years with regard to bilingualism in children and bilingual education. However, myths and misconceptions tend to be the basis of the criticism as opposed to scientific findings.
Twenty years ago, a movement in the U.S. promoted the concept of an “English first” education. As a result, California passed Proposition 227 in 1998, and some other states enacted similar legislation. The regulation sharply reduced the amount of time that ELLs spent in bilingual settings. In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 58, which basically reversed that decision. Today, many researchers strongly advocate for dual-language classrooms.
4 Pros of Bilingual Education
1. Improves Cognitive Skills
The human brain is a complex system, and much remains to be learned about exactly how it works. However, many scientists believe that learning a second language helps improve mental capacities. Our overall capacity for learning may improve due to bilingual education, especially when it begins at a young age, since the human brain develops the most in childhood.
Bilinguals focus their attention more easily in the face of distractions. They also display greater agility in switching from one task to another. According to a 2012 study, “bilingualism has positive effects at both ends of the age spectrum: Bilingual children as young as seven months can better adjust to environmental changes, while bilingual seniors can experience less cognitive decline.”
2. Sharpens Social and Emotional Skills
Young bilingual children learn to follow social cues to determine which language to use, depending on the person and the setting. As a result, bilingual children as young as age three have demonstrated a head start on tests of perspective-taking and theory of mind.
The results of this 2018 study demonstrate that children with a larger bilingual receptive vocabulary who frequently spoke both languages over a longer period of time had better social-emotional and behavioral skills.
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3. Increases School Engagement and Academic Success
For 30 years, Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, a team of professors emeritus at George Mason University in Virginia, have collected evidence on the benefits of bilingual education. In studies across six states and 37 districts, they found that dual-language students earn higher test scores and seem to be happier in school, compared with students in English-only classrooms or in one-way immersion. In addition, attendance is better, behavioral problems fewer, and parent involvement higher.
4. Promotes Diversity and Integration
In general, US public school classrooms are becoming more segregated by race and class. Yet, dual-language programs are often an exception. Because they are composed of native English speakers deliberately placed together with immigrants, they tend to be more ethnically and socioeconomically balanced. And some evidence points to the idea that this educational method helps kids of all backgrounds gain comfort with diversity and different cultures.
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4 Cons of Bilingual Education
1. Programs Are Inconsistent Over Time
Some school districts don’t offer a bilingual education as an option, and of those that do, many only offer a bilingual education program in elementary and middle school, not at the high school level. As a result of this inconsistency, some students may lose some of their second language abilities. For a bilingual education to be effective, it must continue throughout the students’ academic career—and throughout their lives.
2. Target-Language Content Can Cause Learning Challenges
Learning specific content in a second language can be difficult for younger children. Many districts’ bilingual education programs teach half the subjects in English and the rest in Spanish. For example, if math is in Spanish and a student is struggling with fractions at the same time that they struggle with Spanish grammar and vocabulary, it negatively impacts their education.
What’s more, students who struggle with the target language may find themselves overwhelmed with the necessity to learn it instead of participating in other activities. These students may lose out on opportunities to partake in extracurricular projects, athletic teams, and other school organizations.
3. Its Effectiveness Is Unclear for Grades K-3
In a major meta-analysis funded by the US Department of Education that looked at bilingual and two-way programs compared to English-only programs for English learners, researchers concluded: “Evaluations conducted in the early years of a program (Grades K-3) typically reveal that students in bilingual education scored below grade level (and sometimes very low) and performed either lower than or equivalent to their comparison group peers.”
4. Programs Suffer From a Lack of Qualified Staff
Effective bilingual education is immersive—meaning the teachers and teaching assistants are fluent in both languages they teach. They must be also professionally trained in pedagogy and classroom management. Finding a sufficient number of professional bilingual teachers is often a challenge for some school districts.
Final Thoughts on Bilingual Education
Like anything, bilingual education has its pros and cons. However, in my experience, both as a teacher and with regard to my daughter’s bilingual learning journey, I see that the benefits greatly outweigh the cons. Bilingual education is an absolutely worthy endeavor and a wonderful aspect of lifelong learning.
Where do you stand on bilingual education? In your opinion, is it worth it or not? Leave a comment and join the conversation!
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