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Bilingual Early Ed on the Rise: Beneficial for All, Vital for DLLs

Across the country, dual immersion programs are on the rise with growing investments from districts and states to produce bilingual, biliterate students. New York CityHouston, and Indiana, for example, all substantially increased their dual immersion offerings for elementary students at the year's start.

What explains the rise in dual immersion programs? And how do all learners, and dual language learners (DLLs) in particular, stand to benefit?

The White House Task Force on New Americans Educational and Linguistic Integration explored answers to these questions in a recent webinar, “The Benefits of Dual Language Learning.” Libia Gil, the Department of Education’s Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition, stressed a federal commitment to bilingual, biliterate education as a means to support DLLs. She shared the Department’s proposal of a 7-pronged framework, a strategy to ensure DLLs become “college and career ready for a global society by building on students’ linguistic and cultural assets.” One key component of that framework: the need to “identify effective approaches that integrate native languages and cultures to promote multi-literacy.”

The reasons to prioritize multilingualism in this way are manifold. All students, not just DLLs, stand to reap the benefits of what has been dubbed “the bilingual advantage.” As Guadalupe Valdés, Professor of Education at Stanford University, reviewed in the webinar, research increasingly suggests that bilingual children demonstrate greater executive function skills, creativity, and better awareness of how language can be used (“metalinguistic understanding”).

The cognitive benefits of bilingualism for all learners are exciting. And, dual immersion programs have shown to be uniquely powerful for the academic achievement of DLLs in particular. Counter to “sink-or-swim” English-only instructional models, dual immersion models are “astounding[ly] effective” for supporting DLLs' acquisition of English. With the caveat that development of English language proficiency may be slower in the early grades, studies show that DLLs in dual language education overtake DLLs in English-only programs in reading achievement scores by the fifth grade.

In this sense, dual language learning is not just a cognitive bonus but an issue of equity. It is about giving DLLs an equally effective education as their monolingual English-speaking peers, one that will support them to thrive academically.

However, practically speaking, the kinds of arguments necessary to drum up support and build political will for expanding dual immersion will not always revolve around appeals to justice for DLLs. Instead, arguments for bilingual learning have proven potent when framed in terms of the academic, economic, and cultural value of multilingualism for all learners in a global society.

For example, the webinar highlighted the expansion of dual language immersion in Utah, an unlikely champion of dual immersion programs. In 2008, a bill introduced by Republican state senator, Howard Stephenson, created the Dual Language Immersion Program with a legislative line item. Inspired by a visit to China where he saw Chinese students speaking English fluently, Stephenson argued that multilingualism would be good for business in the state and would allow students to connect with the global community.

Now, around 28,000 students currently participate in 138 dual language programs around Utah.

And how much does this all cost the state? Not much, according to Gregg Roberts, World Language and Dual Language Immersion Specialist for Utah’s Department of Education. He noted in the webinar that the Utah has the lowest levels of per-pupil spending in the country, and the dual immersion program has cost only an additional $100 per pupil each year.

“If Utah can do a dual language program, any state listening today can create a dual language immersion program through the legislative process. It is all about creating the political will,” Roberts said.

The Utah legislature was not galvanized to action in the name of meeting DLLs’ needs. But DLLs are benefiting from their action nonetheless. DLLs are only 6 percent of Utah’s population, but many are enrolled in these dual immersion programs, Roberts said. These are programs that serve native and non-native English speakers in an integrated setting. Consider: out of the 73 Spanish dual immersion offerings in the state, 30 are two-way programs. That means half of the students are native Spanish speakers and half are native English speakers.

So, while advocates in Utah employed a more universal call for multilingualism—instead of focusing on the needs of DLLs exclusively—DLLs still win out. Increased access for everyone means increased access for DLLs.

Of course, there are substantial challenges to expanding access to dual language immersion, including—most critically—a shortage of bilingual teachers. But broadening access to multilingual instruction should be a priority. Otherwise, multilingualism risks becoming another privilege that benefits some while excluding others in a different part of town.

The Department of Education’s spotlight on the benefits of learning multiple languages raises the national visibility of an important issue that is already gaining momentum on the ground level. The cognitive, economic, and academic impacts of dual language learning make it a compelling option for all students, one we cannot afford to ignore.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group.Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter,click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”"