The Controversy About Teaching Students in Two Languages

Even though Dual Language (DI) programs, also known as Two Way Immersion, have been around for decades the topic still brings up a lot of controversy, especially in the heightened climate of polarization that the current immigration debate has created. The popularity of the programs has been increasing. In 1990 there were 29 such programs; today there are over 330 in 27 states. At the same time negative views of this teaching method also increased. So, I want to have an open an honest discussion of what Dual Immersion programs are about and the benefits they bring. My daughter is in one such program so I thought it would be best to start out by giving my take on what I have seen over the last couple of years and the backlash the program has created. Let me add that a) I am in no way an expert on the matter, and b) I in no way speak for the program.

Recently a friend, and parent of a child in one of the DI classes, was changing the billboard at the school. She was putting up notices in both English and Spanish. Someone driving by yelled at her to put up the sign “in English only!” There have been complaints from others within the broader school community that the teachers and children in the program are given preferential treatment. Some of these concerns have been valid while some lack an understanding of the work that goes on in the classroom. Others have concerns about test scores. While generally speaking test scores for children in DI lag slightly in the first few grades, they improve dramatically around grade 4. But in this test-centric accountability driven culture No Child Left Behind regulations may become a problem for DI programs in the earlier grades.

Let me address here some of the concerns I have heard voiced most often about the methodology behind DI.

  1. DI programs benefit language majority children (in my case the majority language is English) rather than language minority children (again in my case this would be Spanish) Obviously different groups benefit at different levels and different rates. But, “despite the differences in achievement, the studies reviewed show that both groups benefit. They become bilingual and achieve, for the most part, at or above their grade level.” (María E. Torres-Guzmán, 2002 So while not all groups benefit equally they all benefit to a higher degree than their peers in traditional classes.
  2. Teaching children in a foreign language may give them language skills but at the detriment of other basic education disciplines (e.g. math, reading and writing)Over time students in DI classes generally perform at or above their counterparts in traditional classes across the board in different disciplines (Cazabon, Nicoladis, Lambert, 19998,
  3. The program is more time and money intensiveWhile I have no idea of the costs associated with the program and only brief knowledge of the time requirements I can say that I believe the comparison is invalid. In most cases the comparison has been made to traditional courses, when in fact the comparison should be made to other programs that focus on English Language Learners. In that respect DI programs can offer higher outcomes at reduced costs (María E. Torres-Guzmán, 2002 The additional costs of the DI program, over those of a traditional classroom, have to do with the professional development related to teaching in this environment. I would argue that we as a nation spend far too little on professional development as it is. If the result is that our children are taught better isn’t the higher price worth it? Shouldn’t we be incorporating professional development in more mainstream classes as well?

Critics often counter with their own studies, and with complaints about the methodology of studies touting the benefits of DI methodology. There is certainly no lack of studies. For a fairly exhaustive list you can go to bibliography compiled by the Center for Applied Linguistics – But looking at the issue the preponderance of evidence leads me to believe that the benefits are pretty hard to dispute. However, as I said I want this to be an open and honest conversation. As such I am willing to hear other sides and see what evidence there is to the contrary. The reality is that a lot more research needs to be done to understand the optimal methodology for bilingual education (and if anyone is doing a study and wants subjects let me know). I would add that the optimal method is highly dependent on the individual and the particular environment of that individual. Understanding the variables that go into determining which method is best for each child will take some time.

Let me finally add a personal note. Looking at the way my daughter has been able to flourish both academically and personally has been worth all the hard work we have put into this program. It has been very challenging for us, whose Spanish skills leave a lot to be desired. Helping my daughter with her homework means many trips to the dictionary. Her teachers all talk with us in Spanish while around the children. It has given me the slightest glimpse of what it must be like to come here from a different country with little knowledge of the language and has given me a new respect for what the entails. True part of watching my daughter becoming bilingual has been annoying, she never misses the opportunity to correct my pronunciation. But, seeing her confidence level soar, and knowing that she is not only getting a cognitive benefit but a cultural education that allows her to understand her world a lot better has been incredibly fulfilling. The cognitive benefit comes from how the neural pathways for DI students are increased – like building new muscles in your body. The greater the neural pathways, the greater the potential is for cognitive learning. From a cultural perspective having a greater understanding of Spanish cultures around the world has given her greater comparisons to her own culture and a better ability to relate to people of all different backgrounds.

I would love to hear about your experience with DI, or your view on how we can better educate our children to grow up in a multi-cultural envrionment.