Education Dive defines bilingual education as “the instruction of two languages and the use of both as mediums for all curriculum.”
A dual language classroom is generally set up to have students spend half of their school day with a teacher who speaks English only, and the other half of their day with a teacher who only speaks another language. In the U.S., bilingual programs are for students whose native language is English and who want to learn a second language. These programs also serve students whose native language is not English but want to become fluent in English.
What Are the Benefits of Bilingual Education?
Bilingual education is immersive and helps students become proficient in both languages. A recent article in Kidspot points out that “children will certainly have an advantage in life learning and being educated in two languages.” Being bilingual opens up education and career opportunities. Students who are fluent in a second language can easily choose to study or work in another country.
Dr. Viorica Marian, Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University has studied bilingualism for two decades. In an article for Psychology Today she says, “My research shows that both minority- and majority-language children benefit from dual language education.”
To illustrate, Dr. Marian cites a district-wide Illinois research study in which Spanish-native students in a two-way immersion program outperformed their Spanish-speaking peers in both reading and math. What’s interesting was that English-native students in the immersion program also outperformed their English-native peers in monolingual classrooms.
Brain Benefits of Bilingual Education
“In the last 20 years or so, there’s been a virtual explosion of research on bilingualism,” says Judith Kroll, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, writing for NPR Ed. The article discusses how the brain benefits from dual language education. The brain’s ability to switch from one language to another uses skills called “inhibition” and “task switching,” and “these skills are subsets of a brain ability called executive function.” Brain images have shown actual changes in the structure of the brain in those who are bilingual.
A four-year trial program in public schools in Portland, Oregon, found that students who were assigned to dual-language classrooms in either Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin, along with English, outperformed their peers in English-reading skills by a full school year.
A small Harvard study of 100 fourth graders in Massachusetts produced some correlated results. Some of the students were English natives and others were just starting to learn English and weren’t yet bilingual. Both sets of students were equally good at decoding a text. The results were surprising because the non-native English learners had a more limited vocabulary. What they found was that they scored higher on tests of executive functioning, and got to the same results as the native English speakers.
NPR cites much larger studies that covered six states and 37 school districts showing that dual-language students had somewhat higher test scores and seemed to be happier in school. In addition, they had better attendance, fewer behavioral problems and higher parental involvement.
Long-Term Benefit of Bilingualism
Researchers have found that people who are actively fluent in two languages are less likely to develop age-related dementia. This may have a connection to the changes in brain structure that have been recorded in bilingual children.
One thing these researchers have in common is their advocacy of dual-language classrooms.
American Students Need the Opportunity to Learn a Second Language
While most European countries require students to study at least one foreign language — and some require two — American students are not required to do so. Studies show that the earlier a child is exposed to a second language, the easier it is to learn and the more likely that the student will become proficient. However, even though a nationwide survey showed 80% of adults agree that children in the U.S. should learn a second language fluently before they complete high school, primary schools have very low rates of even offering a foreign language.
Dual language programs have grown in popularity in the United States, and more schools are adopting these programs as the demand increases. Writing for The Texas Tribune, Columbia University student Diego Lomeli notes that as businesses become more global, and diversity in our communities increases, being raised bilingually can help set students up for success as adults. Lomeli also mentions a growing, urgent need for multilingual communicators.
How to Improve Bilingual Education
Educators who are committed to improving bilingual education for American students have the opportunity to pursue a specialized master’s degree that will help them become experts in bilingual education. Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) offers a fully online program for a Master of Science in Curriculum and Instruction with a Specialization in Bilingual Education.
All of the specialization courses in this program are focused on bilingual and multicultural teaching strategies, teaching English as a second language, the history and philosophy of bilingual education, and bilingual oral language assessment and development. Students in this program will also learn about educational research, advanced theories for learning, how to evaluate curriculum and instruction, and more.
The TAMIU M.S. in C&I equips educators with the knowledge and tools to create inclusive educational strategies that meet the needs of diverse student populations.