• by Anna Alicia Romero • IDRA Newsletter • May 1999

Anna Alicia RomeroOur world is becoming a single global community, a community where technology, commerce and immigration have facilitated our exposure to other cultures and languages. Thus, our challenge is to equip future generations with the competencies necessary for multilingual workforce demands.

Our Nation’s Challenge

Children speaking little or no English have traditionally been viewed as burdens to the education system, requiring additional staffing, funding and materials as well as dealing with federal and state compliance standards. But the demands of a global economy are beginning to challenge public schools to produce the workforce necessary for this country to lead and not trail behind other countries where multilingualism is accepted and expected.

It is, therefore, ironic that poor, immigrant children are being viewed as a tool to prepare English-dominant children for the demands of the information age. At one time, and still in many communities around the country, the objective was to totally immerse children in the English language quickly so they could assimilate into the dominant society. Total immersion has not yielded many positive results in student achievement or in gaining workforce skills.

Now, these very children are seen as assets to the classroom, providing new language and cultural experiences for their classmates. Non-English speaking and English-dominant students are being enriched by this new classroom setting.

How Can We Face the Challenge?

Bilingual education teaches English to children and gives them a chance to practice it while they also learn subjects like math and science. Children do not have to waste time in class or wait until they learn English well to begin learning about numbers or about what plants need in order to grow.

Bilingual education is one of the many ways for schools to increase skills and competency levels among the new generation of the U.S. workforce to benefit everyone.

In two-way developmental bilingual education, English speakers and language-minority students are in the same classroom learning all grade-level skills in each other’s languages. Studies show that two-way programs are the most successful program models for language-minority students, as well as for native English speakers.

Two-way bilingual programs, especially in the elementary years, are being used as a way to prepare our children for a different world, one that is not nationalistic or looks only to one language for trade. The school program blends English-speaking students with non-English-speaking students. It provides instruction in both English and a second language, while valuing what each child has to contribute to the learning process.

Two-way bilingual programs around the United States are offered in different languages, depending on the concentration of students in the area speaking another language that is not English. These include Spanish, Cantonese, Korean, Navajo, Japanese and Russian. The overwhelming majority of the programs are conducted in Spanish and English (Christian, 1994). Two states, New York and California, with high populations of immigrant, non-English speaking or limited-English-proficient students, have the greatest number of two-way bilingual programs. But other states are also interested in the potential benefits of students being fluent in two languages.

Who Benefits?

Who reaps the benefits of being biliterate and bilingual? For Hispanic students, being biliterate and bilingual means they will tend to have higher income levels – earning approximately $2,000 more per year than Hispanic adults who speak only English or Spanish (Fern, 1998).

In Florida, business and education sectors have teamed together to study the economic impact of the increasing language-minority populations within the state and how those populations can be used to the state’s economic advantage. Two-way bilingual programs are being viewed as a way to nurture an environment where multiple languages are valued and maintained and how this can be a lure for foreign business interests to invest and set up shop in Florida. In the end, the entire nation stands to gain.

What Makes a Quality Program?

According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a successful two-way bilingual program must contain the following characteristics in order to be successful (Christian, 1994).

  • The program should provide at least four to six years of bilingual instruction to students participating in the program.
  • Students in the program should have the same core academic curriculum as students in other programs.
  • Students should receive optimal language input (sufficient amount of input that is comprehensible and interesting) and output. This includes quality language arts instruction in both languages.
  • At least 50 percent of the class time should be dedicated to the non-English language for instruction. In the early grades, a maximum of 90 percent can be used. Instructional time in English should be used a minimum of 10 percent.
  • The learning environment in the program should be conducive to students learning a second language “while continuing to develop their native language proficiency.”
  • The classroom should be balanced with both English and non-English speaking student along with interactive learning activities.
  • Students need opportunities for positive interaction with each other. Cooperative learning activities can be a tool for facilitating such interactions.
  • Teachers should integrate best practices from other two-way bilingual programs, such as use of qualified staff and strong connections with parents.

Why Should Parents be Vigilant?

Access to quality bilingual programs has traditionally been a struggle for language-minority families. Therefore, it is critical that parents be vigilant with the education their children are receiving and that the type of instruction they get facilitates fluency in English, while valuing the home language (see “Parents Organizing”).

Economic necessity may finally be pushing for equity in some areas of our education system. Regardless, we must be vigilant that such opportunities are not the sole domain of the middle class, but that children in poor communities may also have the opportunity to learn without losing part of their cultural identity.


Christian, D. Two-way Bilingual Education: Students Learning Through Two Languages (Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1994).

Collier, V.P. and W. Thomas. “Language Minority Student Achievement and Program Effectiveness,” research summary of ongoing study, (George Mason University, September 1995).

Fern, V. What is the Impact of Biliterary/Bilingualism on the Economy (Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, July 1998).

Fradd, S.H. and O. Lee (eds). Creating Florida’s Multilingual Global Work Force: Educational Political Practices for Students Learning English as a New Language (Tallahassee, Fla.: Florida Department of Education, March 30, 1998).

Intercultural Development Research Association. “America Needs Bilingual Education to Produce Educated Well-Informed Citizens,” Class Notes (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1996).

Intercultural Development Research Association. “Bilingual Education Helps to Create an Educated Workforce,” Class Notes (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).

Lindholm, K. “Criteria for Success in Two-Way Bilingual Education,” Bilingual Education: Issues and Strategies, A. Padilla, H. Fairchild and C. Valdez (eds.) (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1990).

Anna Alicia Romero is an education assistant in the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1999 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.]