Walking the Bilingualism Tightrope

Weekly Article
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Feb. 7, 2019

It’s yet another story of something going from vital to vogue—with consequences.

Reporter Corey Mitchell recently investigated a growing tension in the education field: Is bilingualism only valued for some students? More specifically, Mitchell’s story presents an argument shared by scholars who have studied the Seal of Biliteracy—an award high school students can earn for demonstrating their proficiency in a second language—that states are promoting “the language learning of middle- and upper-middle class students as an achievement, while the potential bilingualism of Latinx and other students is more of an afterthought.” This trend is only more alarming in light of Tom Brokaw’s recent assertion that “Hispanics should work harder at assimilation” and a Duke University professor’s warning to international students in her biostatistics program to stop speaking Chinese in common areas or face unintended consequences, such as being passed over for internships and research projects.

While the growing interest in bilingualism is an important step toward helping children across the country expand their language skills, a key question remains: Are programs and policies ensuring that English learner (EL) students aren’t getting left behind in the process?

Dual language immersion programs that provide students with the opportunity to become bilingual and biliterate have grown increasingly popular over the last 10 years, particularly among native English speakers. But as the popularity of dual language increases, districts and states across the country are grappling with how to ensure that English learner students and families maintain access to these valuable educational programs. In addition, advocates and researchers have warned that dual language programs are increasingly becoming a tool of enrichment rather than a mode of serving the needs of ELs.

In other words, as Mitchell suggests and as the Brokaw and Duke University examples underscore, the education field is currently running the risk of framing bilingualism as an asset for monolingual English speakers—and as a deficit for English learners.

Consider, for instance, a bill that city lawmakers recently introduced in the District of Columbia to increase access to dual language immersion programs across the city. The bill is a response to the growing demand for dual language programs and the product of extensive advocacy from parents and other community members. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation misses the mark when it comes to recognizing the needs of the city’s English learner student population.

In particular, the bill calls for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to open one new dual language program in each ward (D.C. is split into eight wards, the majority of which are highly segregated) of the city by the 2020-21 school year. The bill also states that equity is at the heart of the expansion plan, and that it seeks to ensure “greater access to and participation by students and residents from historically underrepresented and underserved groups regardless of language spoken at home.” But by ignoring English learners—in fact, the bill doesn’t mention ELs at all—it serves as a prime example of how states and districts employ dual language programs for enrichment rather than with an eye to achieving equity.

To see examples of effective and much more expansive approaches to bilingualism in schools, look no further than jurisdictions that have grown their dual language programs with the needs of ELs in mind. New York state, for one, has a bilingual mandate that requires schools to offer bilingual programs if they enroll 20 or more ELs who speak the same home language. New York City’s rapid expansion of dual language programs has been driven largely by a state-issued corrective action plan that arose because of the district’s failure to adhere to the bilingual mandate. Portland Public Schools, meanwhile, offers programs in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Japanese, and, in the future, Arabic as a way to meet the ballooning needs of their EL students and the heritage speakers of those languages.

Put it this way: These areas have prioritized creating programs as a means of fostering equity and promoting the academic success of their EL students.

The D.C. Council’s bill attempts to create equal access to programs by mandating that DCPS open one new dual language program in each ward of the city by the 2020-21 school year. But equal isn’t the same as equitable. By definition, equity aims to provide students with additional and differentiated resources based on their educational needs. Multiple research studies confirm that dual language programs are particularly beneficial for ELs’ academic growth and provide them the opportunity to maintain their home languages and stay connected to their culture.

To be sure, research on the academic benefits of dual language programs and on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are driving factors in the push to expand access to these programs for all students. However, areas looking to develop and implement these programs must factor in one important consideration: Many of these studies, including widely cited research by the scholars Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas, focus on two-way programs—a.k.a. programs that enroll equal numbers of native English speakers and native speakers of the partner language. In that light, local and state policies ought to emphasize creating two-way models—models that would leverage and raise the home languages of English learners as an asset for the program. (Some school districts do already prioritize the enrollment of ELs by holding a specific number of slots in the program or by specifying a percentage of ELs that should be enrolled.)

Crucially, these policies aren’t designed to limit access to native English speakers, but rather to acknowledge and address the needs of English learners. Research by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that Spanish use is declining in Latinx households, particularly among children. Speaking from my own personal experience, the decline is likely influenced by the pressure to assimilate and learn English as quickly as possible. Dual language programs give ELs and heritage speakers the powerful opportunity to counteract that pressure and retain connections to their home languages and cultures. If state and local policymakers are serious about closing the opportunity gap for vulnerable student groups, including English learners, they’d be wise to ignore public calls to create equal access to dual language programs at the expense of equitable access.