Like many children of immigrants or refugees in the United States, I started school as a dual language learner (DLL). My parents were Egyptian immigrants, and Arabic was the primary language spoken in our Nashville home. When I started pre-K, I remember struggling to understand my classmates and my teacher. I often felt scared and confused.
At home, my multilingual mother continued to speak to me in Arabic and helped to nurture my emerging English skills with nightly lessons. But my school did not have the resources to help me develop both languages during the day. Eventually, I lost most of my Arabic language skills on the way to becoming fluent in English.
Language learning need not be a zero-sum game. In pockets across the country, education leaders have increasingly recognized this reality and pushed for the expansion of dual immersion (DI) instruction. The method involves teaching content in both English and a partner language in order to achieve fluency in both languages.
English learners (ELs) in dual immersion classrooms have been known to outperform other ELs in sheltered English immersion classes, as well as some of their non-EL peers. This is in addition to the multiple studies that point to the significant cognitive, social-emotional, and cultural benefits of DI for both ELs and non-ELs alike. Together, these benefits have led to a sharp rise in the popularity of DI programs across the country, even among non-ELs.
While ELs in the United States speak hundreds of different languages, most of the DI programs available to them at present are Spanish-English programs. This should come as no surprise—Spanish speakers far outnumber any other group of ELs in the United States.
Though Spanish speakers make up the majority of ELs, Arabic is the fastest-growing language in the United States. In the state of Washington alone, the population of Arabic-speaking students more than doubled over a five year period. This recent boom has seen Arabic-speaking students rise to become the second-largest group of English learners in K-12 schools.
But the sharp rise in the number of Arabic speakers has not been met with a proportional increase in Arabic DI programs. In fact, the country’s first Arabic DI program—where instruction is split evenly between Arabic and English—only opened in Houston in 2015. A few others have followed suit, with New York opening one Arabic DI program and the Qatari Foundation providing funding for various Arabic language programs in a few other states, such as California, Arizona, and Minnesota.
But even these few Arabic programs have been met with more opposition than typical compared to more common languages for dual immersion programming. The principal of the first Arabic DI school mentioned above, the Arabic Immersion Magnet School in Houston, noted that her school’s opening drew several protesters waving American flags and anti-Muslim signs.
The extreme politicization of the Arabic language stands to undermine the expansion of these programs. The language conjures associations with Islam, which many Americans see as a threat to the United States. In fact, the Pew study cited earlier which names Arabic as the fastest growing language in the United States was met with many derisive articles about the perceived dismal state of the nation, including one from alt-right Breitbart commentators. More broadly, Arabic-centered xenophobia continues to manifest itself regularly in American society. Individuals speaking the language are punished or profiled unfairly simply because of the false assumptions of others.
The expansion of Arabic dual immersion programs will require grappling with these nationalist sentiments head on. Despite the potential for resistance, it is critical that Arabic-speaking ELs be a part of the conversation in light of the rising popularity of DI programs.
Beyond politics, there are also other concerns related to leveraging DI equitably for Arabic-speaking ELs and ELs in general. Because these programs have become so in demand with generally wealthier, whiter, native English-speaking families, the rising popularity of these programs comes with the potential to leave out ELs. Many schools that offer DI programs do not maintain a specific quota of English learners. ELs are then left to vie for the remaining spots after non-ELs—who are more likely to be able to relocate to a district offering these coveted DI programs—take up a majority of the available enrollment. In this way, the students who need the DI program the most are left out.
Consider the fact that in the first year of the Houston Arabic program, only about ten percent of the students came from households that spoke Arabic. Similarly, only about twelve percent of the students at Mary Ovington School in New York—another school that offers Arabic DI—were English learners in the 2015-16 school year.
Arabic speakers remain the fastest-growing group in the United States and show no signs of slowing down. It is important that school districts demonstrate a commitment to Arabic-speaking students by encouraging native language development, as well as English proficiency through DI programs. Where these programs exist, schools must ensure that ELs who would benefit the most from them are able to enroll. Certainly, when I think back on my early school experiences, I wish it had been an option available to me.