Bilingual Education, Monolingual Parents

“Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century,”says Gregg Roberts, world language specialist for the Utah Office of Education.  Only 17 % of Americans can speak another language, while over 50% of Europeans and up to two-thirds of adults in other parts of the world can converse in a second language.  A 2007 Gallup poll reported that 85% of Americans believe children should be learning a second language, yet only 25% of our elementary schools offer bilingual or foreign language instruction.  Approximately 15% of elementary school students (grades K‐6) were enrolled in a language course, but almost 80% of those courses were “exploratory,” rather than aiming at bilingual education.

In a 2006 report entitled, Education for Global Leadership: The Importance of International Studies and Foreign Languages for U.S. Economic and National Security, the Committee for Economic Development stated ,

“To confront … twenty‐first century challenges to our economy and national security, our education system must be strengthened to increase the foreign language skills and cultural awareness of our students. America’s continued global leadership will depend on our students’ abilities to interact with the world community both inside and outside our borders…. The educated American of the twenty‐first century will need to be conversant with at least one language in addition to his or her native language, and knowledgeable about other countries, other cultures, and the international dimensions of issues critical to the lives of all Americans”

According to Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education, it is in our economic, cultural and political interests for Americans to able to read, speak and understand other languages. Global problems including the environment, health and disease, poverty, development and peace require international understanding and cooperation.  We need diplomats, foreign policy experts, politicians, military leaders, business leaders, scientists, physicians, entrepreneurs, managers, technicians, historians, artists, and writers who are proficient in languages other than English.  By being able to communicate in two or more languages, the children of the future will be free to interact with diverse cultures and ideas. People who speak two languages can communicate and learn from two different perspectives.   Being bilingual also makes it is easier to travel and find a job.  In fact, research shows that bilinguals earn an average of $7,000 more per year than their monolingual peers.

In addition to the economic and sociocultural benefits, the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages has compiled many studies establishing that being bilingual helps children improve focus, develop better English skills, improve school performance and develop the ability to learn a third language.  In fact, Jennifer Steele at American University conducted a four-year, randomized trial and found that dual-language students in Portland outperformed their peers in English-reading skills by a full school year’s worth of learning by the end of middle school.  And, data from the Admissions Testing Program of the College Board show a positive correlation between SAT scores and the study of a foreign language. Verbal scores of students increased with each additional year of language study. The most interesting piece of information is that the verbal scores of students who had taken four or five years of foreign language were higher than the verbal scores of students who had taken four or five years of any other subjects.   Bilingual student’s performance on English tests is likely superior because they are more aware of language structures, grammar, literacy and language skills. But the positive effects of bilingual education extend beyond standardized test scores in English. A study by Taylor Ward in 2003 focused on third-grade foreign language students who continued their foreign language study through and including the fifth grade in Louisiana public schools. The researcher found that the foreign language students significantly outperformed their non-foreign language counterparts on every state standardized subtest.  And, in studies covering six states and 37 districts, they have found that dual-language students have somewhat higher test scores, better attendance, and less behavioral problems.

Bilingual Home

Raising a bilingual son when you aren’t bilingual yourself is a challenge. From 2 to 3 years old, a child naturally knows the language to which he is exposed and expresses himself in that tongue. I’ve sent my son to a bilingual or immersion school since he was 15 months. I enrolled him in a part-time immersion preschool at 4 years  old and I saw a lot better results.  Despite sending my son to bilingual and immersion preschools, he is now 4 1/2 and doesn’t speak Spanish. In fact, research reveals that native English speakers in immersion programs don’t quite achieve native-like levels of speaking and writing skills. When native skills are achieved, students received several months in a complete immersion environment with regular language instruction.  I think the problem is that I attempted to pawn the job of teaching Spanish off on his school. I really don’t think there is a substitute for speaking Spanish at home if you only want to send your child to school part-time. My son can count to 10 in Spanish and knows how to say yes, hi and bye in Spanish. But, he rarely converses with me in Spanish (despite my attempts) and doesn’t like watching shows in Spanish for long.  The best results come from reading and speaking with my son in Spanish.  If I want my son to be bilingual, we are going to have to bring more bilingual fun in our home through music, movies, storytime and dialogues.

learning-with-yayaWhile media is not a great way to learn a second language without real life experiences, it is a great way to introduce you and your child to new vocabulary that you can practice together. One of my favorite ways to practice Spanish at home is with Learning with Yaya because it was developed by a pediatric, bilingual speech and language pathologist.  We taught our son baby sign language by watching Signing Time together and using the signs ourselves until he started using them, too.  Similarly, Learning with Yaya’s songs and books help me and my son learn Spanish together in a fun way.  There are also Spanish apps for kids by Rosetta Stone, Endless Spanish, Little Pim,  and FunSpanish.

Kids love music. Music engages the entire brain and makes learning fun. Through songs, children not only can improve their listening and memory skills, but they can also learn new vocabulary, sentence structures, and practice their pronunciation skills.  My son likes listening to music in all languages. He loves music in Spanish just as much as music in English. He even likes listening to my yoga kirtan music in Sanskrit and repeats the mantras back exactly.

My son also loves books but I have found it laborious to read even the most simple stories in Spanish.  Even Dr. Seuss books are too difficult. In order for me to feel comfortable reading, I need books with simple Spanish vocabulary. I leave the more elaborate stories to my public library, which occasionally offers bilingual story time.  My son also enjoys workbooks, which are available in Spanish.  High Five magazine has a bilingual version, which is a great way outside of the library to access a variety of new and interesting reading material in Spanish.

Lastly, one of the best ways to bring a second language into the home is by bringing a person into the home that speaks that language.  I’m finally considering hiring a nanny to watch my son when I need to go to meetings or networking events rather than scrambling and begging the grandparents every time.  I will definitely be hiring someone who speaks Spanish.

Research shows that language is developed from birth (maybe even in the womb), improves general academic success and is necessary to prepare our kids for the global marketplace.  We need to make bilingual education a priority in our homes and seek language enrichment for our kids from the start. As we seek and use bilingual early education tools, the market will respond to the demand with even more robust options.

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One of the most important ways for a monolingual parent to raise a bilingual child is through dual language and immersion schools.  The best time to learn a language is between birth and 8 years old. In most European countries, students begin studying their first foreign language as a compulsory school subject between the ages of 6 and 9, according to a 2012 report from Eurostat, the statistics arm of the European Commission. However, most foreign languages are introduced much later in U.S. schools. Primary schools have very low rates of offering foreign-language course work, let alone making it compulsory.

In a bilingual program, language is not considered an academic subject, because the language is not the object taught, it is the instrument used to teach the curriculum.  One of the hottest trends in public schooling is what’s often called dual-language or two-way immersion programs.  In these programs, one teacher teaches in the native language and another teaches in the second language. This method is taught on alternate days, or perhaps morning in the native language and afternoon in the second language.

According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, there are 294 school districts that have elementary schools with a dual language program. Utah, California and Minnesota are the leaders in  immersion, and New York City, North Carolina, Delaware, Oregon and Washington have followed suit by creating dual language programs as well. While dual immersion exists in many school districts and metropolitan areas, Utah is the only state with a program.  When students graduate from a Utah high school, they are only two classes short of having a minor in a foreign language.  California, New York, Illinois, and New Mexico also have a  Seal of Bi-literacy on their high school diploma that signals to future employers and college admission officers that the student has attained proficiency in a second language by the time they graduate from high school.

All of this progress is very exciting. I was happy to find that my local school district, Dallas Independent School District (DISD), has had a two-way dual language program since 2006 and offers the program in 50 elementary schools.  While most are flocking to the suburbs for better schools, I was more interested in the dual language and Montessori options available at DISD, which are absent in the suburbs.  When it came time to enroll my son in kindergarten, however, I was disappointed find out that these programs have limited space, which are given based on a lottery system.

As mothers and advocates for our children’s education and future, we need to share information about why bilingual education is a worthy endeavor and how the transition has been successfully accomplished in other cities and states so we can catch-up with the bilingual education and capabilities around the world.   We need to integrate foreign language the way we have integrated technology into schools.  We need to help and encourage our education administrators to find high-quality, licensed, foreign language teachers and develop appropriate curricula, materials, and resources. Therefore, we need to find out what programs are available in our areas and reach out to PTAs, state supervisors of languages, superintendents, school boards, state boards of education, congress members and other elected representatives to educate and assist them in implementing more programs.  The American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages  and the National Network for Early Language Learning have a lot of helpful tools for advocating for bilingual education.  Let’s not just make bilingual education lofty yet unattainable ideal or personal endeavor for our own children, lets make it the next revolution in American education.


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