We are at an important juncture in our history as a nation. As our global society continues to expand, we have the choice to co-create a better future for our children by ensuring equity, access and excellence in education as core values that will help transform our world. That choice allows us to become all that we can be as a people, through the celebration of our diversity of language, history and culture.
It also means that we fully embrace our multicultural and multilingual society and that we provide full support for all learners which, by definition, includes excellent bilingual education for English language learners.
The alternative reality requires us to abandon the truth and gifts of our diversity. That choice would insulate ourselves and perpetuate gaps that continue to hurt our children by limiting their potential for the future. It would continue an intolerable reality that race, language, cultural heritage and zip code are determining factors for the kind of education each child receives.
Choosing to live to our fullest potential as educators means recognizing the value of bilingual education and celebrating language and culture as the highest expressions of the human spirit.
Seen in this light, bilingual education is recognized as a prized commodity, a means of ensuring democracy. Rather than seeing English language learners as problems to be solved, this view recognizes the treasure represented in the diversity of all children and embraces the benefits of diversity in the teaching and learning experience.
As we teach tolerance and the valuing of different opinions and expressions, language preservation is paramount. Diversity is a value that is expressed through language acquisition. Language is not an expression of culture, it is culture. IDRA founder and director emeritus, Dr. José A. Cárdenas, explains that “multicultural instruction is neither a subsidy for affirmative ethnicity nor an attempt to emphasize cultural differences, but an overdue recognition of the role of minorities in American culture” (Crawford, 2004).
Bilingual education, thus, is an investment in preserving the human and intellectual capital for this nation’s future.
Most nations value multiple languages for their inherent value. In fact, it is the norm in many so-called “underdeveloped” nations for children to speak more than one, and often several, languages.
Most nations also recognize what research shows that when it comes to second language learning, earlier is better, since younger children are born with the innate ability and ease to learn multiple languages. Introduction of second language at the preschool level is the prime teachable phase. Many children enter school knowledgeable of a home or heritage language other than English. Instead of further developing that language, schools often devalue and subsequently erase that language at a tender and impressionable age. As a result, through our history, we have systematically lost several languages. And we continue to lose students in this way, by devaluing their home language, their parents and their culture in the process.
There are many misconceptions about bilingual education, and the debate about which program is best continues to rage on. In the meantime, many bilingual teachers receive misinformation about what to do and in what language to teach. Ultimately, children are the ones who suffer the consequences.
One misconception is that bilingual education means teaching in two languages simultaneously. The truth is that bilingual education teaches primarily in the native or home language to develop language concepts and literacy first and then transfers to the second language (English).
While many schools are offering foreign language instruction to children in elementary school so that they will be prepared for a global society, others are moving back to a subtractive model of bilingual education in which children who speak a language other than English are immersed in English instruction and the native language is eradicated and learning of core subjects is hindered.
In Texas, the state education agency describes bilingual education as follows: “The goal of bilingual education programs shall be to enable limited-English-proficient students to become competent in the comprehension, speaking, reading and composition of the English language through the development of literacy and academic skills in the primary language and English. Such programs shall emphasize the mastery of English language skills, as well as mathematics, science and social studies, as integral parts of the academic goals for all students to enable limited-English-proficient students to participate equitably in school.” (TEA, 1996)
When properly applied, bilingual education fosters English language acquisition and values the child’s first language so that the child does not lose the first language, but rather, gains a second language and becomes proficient in both.
Nancy Zelasko and Beth Antunez write, “When children who are not yet fluent in English switch to using only English, they are forced to function at an intellectual level below their age” (2000).
It is best for children to develop their native language first and then transfer their skills to the second language (English) to ensure academic success and intellectual development. Zelasko and Antunez point out that children who learn English and who continue to develop their native language perform much better than those students who learn English at the expense of their first language (2000).
IDRA executive director, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel states: “Thirty years of research have proven that bilingual education, when implemented well, is the best way to learn English. Children in such programs achieve high academic standards.” (2003)
Socially, the benefits also are significant. When two or more languages are valued, teachers note that “Hispanic and White children are more likely to play together and that parents from different cultures are more willing to approach one another” (Berger, 2007).
Dr. Abelardo Villarreal explains that the struggle to achieve equity-based excellence in education points to a need for rethinking the educational goals, strategies and processes that presently shape educational programs serving English language learners. He identifies two contextual dimensions that are primarily responsible for the success or demise of the transitional bilingual education program. These dimensions are: (1) support of the program at all levels of the school hierarchy, and (2) level of knowledge of bilingual education as evidenced through curriculum and instructional activities implemented in the program. Teachers, parents and administrators working in collaboration should be fully knowledgeable and supportive of best practices in bilingual education to ensure that every student is valued and supported for high academic achievement at the same academic requirements and opportunities as native English-speaking students.
IDRA has identified the 25 common characteristics that contribute to high academic performance of students served by bilingual education programs. IDRA conducted this research in 2000 and 2001 through funding by the then U.S. Department of Education, Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs (OBEMLA). IDRA rigorously and methodically studied exemplary bilingual education programs in schools across the nation as determined by limited‑English‑proficient students’ academic achievement. To help others identify successful programs or raise the bar with their own bilingual education programs, IDRA has produced Good Schools and Classrooms for Children Learning English resulting from the study. This guide is a rubric, designed for people in schools and communities to evaluate five dimensions that are necessary for success: school indicators, student outcomes, leadership, support, and programmatic and instructional practices.
As we sort through sound educational choices for the future, the question to consider becomes what kind of world do we want our children to inherit? Hopefully, it is a world where diversity of languages unites rather than divides us and where English language learners succeed in school and graduate prepared for college.
Sound bilingual education practices and the full engagement of English language learners in education will ensure equity, access and excellence in education for all children, a wise investment in our collective future.
Berger, J. “Building a Nation of Polyglots, Starting with the Very Young,” The New York Times (November 14, 2007).
Crawford, J. Educating English Learners, Fifth Edition (Los Angeles, Calif.: Bilingual Educational Services, Inc., 2004).
Lindholm-Leary, K. Biliteracy for a Global Society, An Idea Book on Dual Language Education (Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse on English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs, George Washington University, 2000).
Robledo Montecel, M. “Successful Bilingual Education Programs,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 2003).
Texas Education Agency. Chapter 89. Adaptations for Special Populations. Subchapter BB. Commissioner’s Rules Concerning State Plan for Educating Limited English Proficient Students (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, September 1, 1996).
Villarreal, A. “Rethinking the Education of English Language Learners: Transitional Bilingual Education Program,” Bilingual Research Journal (Winter 1999) 23:1.
Zelasko, N., and B. Antunez. If Your Child Learns in Two Languages (Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse on English Language Acquisition and language Instruction Educational Programs, The George Washington University, 2000).
Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D. is director of development in IDRA Field Services. José L. Rodríguez, M.A., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and question may be directed to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2008, IDRA. The following article originally appeared in the February 2008 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]