Making bilingualism and biliteracy the norm

Could we retool our primary education system to produce bilingual, biliterate children who outperform their monolingual counterparts, in both languages? Amazingly, it seems we can, and it doesn’t even sound difficult or expensive.

First, a little background. You probably already have a fixed image in your mind of how language education works at the primary level.

There is ESL, where kids are pulled away from their peers for half of the day to attend what are looked upon as remedial English classes. Since ESL students divide their attention between learning English and keeping up with what their peers are learning, it is inevitable that there will be a disparity.

At the same time, for the native English speakers in the class, foreign language exposure is minimal, consisting of learning to introduce yourself, say a few phrases, and sing a cute song or two. This despite the fact that their classmates may be native speakers of these languages.

While there is a vague sense that there are some untapped synergies, English is Priority 1, so the system is not often questioned.

Every child deserves a chance to succeed. But how can a child with seemingly so much more to learn ever be on equal footing with native English speakers? And as some English-speaking taxpayers like to complain, is it even worth spending extra tax dollars to meet these foreigners at their level?

Like so many difficult questions, this one becomes easier when you reframe it. Both the English speaking child and the child who speaks another language are at the same developmental stage. That we favor English in our schools is not a reason to treat one as superior, and the other in need of remedial classes.

Consider also studies that show that learning a second language provides benefits far beyond the simple application of said language. Compared to their monolingual peers, bilinguals demonstrate improved function in their native language, and in language and information processing in general.

Could it be that the monolingual, native English speakers are the ones who need to catch up? And can the foreign students help them?

The solution I’ve been learning about recently is known as two-way immersion. Essentially, it is the practice of teaching a heterogeneous class (composed of speakers of two different languages) alternately in one language, then the other. For example, in the morning, class is conducted in English, but Japanese is used in the afternoon. This routine is switched periodically. The expected result: a group of bilingual, biliterate children.

The big question: Does it work?

While the evidence is limited at this time, and the examples consist mainly of English+Spanish (the clear choice in the U.S. Southwest) it does appear that children take to it well, and indeed, end up surpassing their monolingual counterparts.

I will surely be researching this more in the coming months. The era of “English is the only language you’ll never need” is over, and our children will need to be prepared for what’s next.

  • Shay Shay

    Evidence is not limited. It clearly shows children are capable of more than one language…and that language does support cognitive growth…and that it IS possible and works, even when the languages are distant from each other (i.e. Japanese and English) …just a little research I’ve been reading up on recently…he he he~*

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