• by Frank Gonzales, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 1996 • 

One day, Mother Mouse was crossing the street with her three little children. She got about halfway across the road when she spotted a cat, crouched and ready to pounce upon them. The cat and Mother Mouse eyeballed each other for two to three minutes. Finally, Mother Mouse opened her mouth and let out an enormous “Woof.” The cat quickly scurried away to avoid this “unseen” dog. Mother Mouse turned to her three little ones and said, “Now, do you see the advantage of a second language?” (author unknown).

This is an example of what being bilingual can do for all the “mice” of this world. In a global society, being bilingual can literally save your life. Having more than one set of language skills gives a person a competitive edge when seeking employment or interacting in the global market. Being able to interact in a multicultural society enriches one’s life with purpose and meaning. This article discusses two­way bilingual programs and the value of maintaining or developing more than one language.

Transitional Bilingual Programs

Bilingual education programs for non­English speakers have been in operation in the United States for three decades. The Lau vs. Nichols Supreme Court decision in 1973 guaranteed non­English speaking students equal access to education through the Lau remedies, one of which was bilingual education, for school districts. Districts responded by providing transitional bilingual or English as a second language (ESL) programs.

Transitional bilingual programs view students who have another language as a “problem.” The perceived solution is to transition them into English as soon as possible. This transition period is usually three years or less. Students are taught subject matter in their native language while they are learning English. Emphasis is on transitioning into English, not maintaining the native language. When the child has learned enough English, he or she is mainstreamed into the regular classroom, and native language instruction is stopped.

Transitional bilingual programs can place students at risk when the transition process interrupts the acquisition of academic language development process that requires five to seven years (Cummins, 1981). Little emphasis is placed on valuing the native language and culture; consequently, the child’s self­concept is undermined. This hurry­up approach provides too little a foundation on which to build academic success for most limited­English­proficient (LEP) students. This type of instruction is compensatory in nature and reinforces the attitude that students are not good enough the way they are.

Two­ Way Bilingual Programs

Another type of bilingual program, two­ way bilingual education, has taken root in many schools throughout the United States. Two­ way bilingual education is also known as bilingual immersion, two­ way immersion, dual language instruction and developmental bilingual education. In these programs, students receive instruction in English and another language in a classroom that is usually one ­half native speakers of English and one­ half native speakers of the target language (Sosa, 1993). All students develop proficiency in both languages. The most common targeted language is Spanish, however some two­ way programs support learning through Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, Russian, Portuguese, French and Navajo (Collier, 1994).

Two­way bilingual programs develop social and academic language. The LEP student benefits from the opportunity to learn through his or her native language as well as through English (Krashen, 1991; Sosa, 1993). Native English speakers acquire a second language as they are taught academic content in an immersion environment (Genesee, 1987; Harley, et al., 1990).

All students add another language and culture. This additive environment also enhances students’ self­esteem and allows for cross­cultural understanding (Christian, 1994). The goal of two­way bilingual programs is to create fully bilingual individuals whether they be White, Black, Hispanic, Asian American or Native American.

Two­ way bilingual programs can present the two languages in a number of ways. The two languages may be allocated by content (e.g., social studies and mathematics are taught in Spanish while science and the arts are taught in English); by teacher (e.g., one teacher uses only Cantonese and another teacher uses only English); or by day (e.g., instruction is given in a certain language on alternate days) (Gonzales, 1995).

Two­ way bilingual programs also allow for different language development models. In the “50/50” model, students receive instruction for equal amounts of time in each language. In the “90/10” model, 90 percent of the instruction is in the target language, 10 percent is in English during the early grades, and instruction gradually moves toward “50/50” in the upper grades. Some programs never separate the students by language group, while others provide specific second language instruction to separate language groups every day.

The curriculum in two­ way bilingual programs is content­ based with a focus on developing strong academic achievement in both languages. Teachers most often use thematic units, experimental or hands­ on activities, peer interaction or cooperative learning, whole language approaches (e.g., from the whole to the parts) and second language strategies (e.g., graphic organizers, visuals and realia, discussions) (Gonzales, 1994).

Two­ way bilingual programs are effective in teaching two languages to different groups of students and in developing academic competence in all of the students. Kathryn J. Lindholm and Kathryn Gavlek found that student achievement on several standardized tests demonstrated academic progress as well as fluency in both languages (1994). Virginia Collier found that Hispanic students in five urban districts with two­ way programs experienced more long­term educational gains than did students in other bilingual or ESL programs (1994). Donna Christian points out that cross­ cultural interaction in two­ way programs enhances the acquisition of the second language and builds a mutual respect among the students (1994).

All currently established two­ way bilingual programs in the United States are at the elementary level and engage students for only four to six years. There is no continued development of bilingualism into the secondary level. This is tragic because the competition these students will face in our global society will require bilingual or multilingual skills. Contrary to U.S. belief, not everyone speaks English on this globe. English ranks fourth among the top 10 languages spoken on earth (see box on Page 5).

If our schools really want our students to be able “cry woof” when they need to, we must value the linguistic diversity that students bring to the school and enhance the students’ native language, teach them English as a second language, and encourage them to learn three, four or five languages.


Christian, Donna. Two­way Bilingual Education: Students Learning through Two Languages. (Santa Cruz, Calif. and Washington, D.C.: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, 1994).

Collier, V. Promising Practices in Public Schools. Paper presented at annual meeting (Baltimore, Md.: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 1994).

Cummins, J. Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework (Los Angeles, Calif.: California State University; Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center, 1981).

Genesee, F. Learning through Two Languages: Students of Immersion and Bilingual Education. (Cambridge, Mass.: Newbury House, 1987).

Gonzales, Frank. First and Second Language Acquisition Processes. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1995).

Gonzales, Frank. Starting TodaySteps to Success for Beginning Bilingual Educators. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1994).

Harley, B., and P. Allen, J. Cummins, M. Swain (Eds). The Development of Second Language Proficiency. (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Krashen, S.D. Bilingual Education: A Focus on Current Research. (Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1991).

Lindholm, Kathryn J., and Kathryn Gavlek. California DBE Projects: Project­wide Evaluation Report, 1992­1993. (San Jose, Calif.: Lindholm and Gavlek, 1994).

Sosa, Alicia. Thorough and Fair: Creating Routes to Success for Mexican­American Students. (Washington, DC: ERIC, 1993).

Frank Gonzales, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1996 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.]