Dual-language immersion programs

iStock_000020536048XSmallThe education of non-English-speaking children has become increasingly controversial as traditional bilingual programs fail to meet expectations. Many educators are concerned about the dwindling resources available for bilingual education, the public pressure for accountability and their own inability to demonstrate by achievement scores that bilingual education is working.

Dual-language immersion programs may offer a solution to these problems. Beginning in kindergarten, these programs combine monolingual English-speaking children with non-English-speaking children in the same class. Instruction is usually managed in one of two ways — either 90 percent of the instruction is carried out in the non-English language and 10 percent is carried out in English, or instruction is split 50-50 between the two languages. The aim of such programs is for the English-speaking children to develop a high level of proficiency in a second language at an early age, and for non-English- speaking children to get a good foundation in academics in their native language while being surrounded by English-speaking peer models to help them learn English more rapidly.

Immersion programs need to be examined

In a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review, Guadalupe Valdes, Stanford University, raises some questions about dual-language immersion programs. Valdes points out that dual-language immersion is a relatively new approach that needs to be examined closely by policymakers, practitioners, researchers and parents before it is widely accepted. Dual-language immersion is based on research carried out over several years in Canada’s one-way immersion program. The purpose of the Canadian program was to educate English-speaking children in French. This research shows that middle-class, English-speaking children can be educated quite successfully through a second language. Many foreign-language teachers in the United States who are concerned about developing second-language proficiency in mainstream children have become interested in dual-language programs.

Valdes, however, urges caution in trying to solve two very different language problems simultaneously. She reminds us that educators must grapple with the conflicts of trying to educate two very different groups of children in the same language. The quality of the primary language used with minority, non-English-speaking children is a key concern, as are the needs of the mainstream children. This means that the language in which both minority and majority children receive instruction must be modified in different ways in order to respond to each group’s needs. For example, because the English-speaking children will not understand much Spanish at first, the teacher will need to use simplified and repetitive phrases. However, the Spanish-speaking children are capable of speaking and understanding much more complex Spanish.

Valdes has been involved with research on the bilingual education of children from Mexican families for many years. Her conversations with researchers and parents and her observations carried out in schools and communities in New Mexico and California have led her to look at some possible negative effects of dual-language immersion. For example, she questions the effects of immersion on social relations between the groups. In addition, she looks at how these programs affect the relationship between language and power and how that relationship may affect the children and society. Valdes points out that the Spanish language has served to unite minority communities and has helped them get jobs requiring bilingualism. Some Spanish-speaking parents worry about giving away their language to children of the powerful majority.

Other factors that influence achievement

Valdes urges educators and communities considering adoption of this new program to consider all the factors, not just language, that contribute to the educational successes and failures of children whose first language is not English. In the last 20 years, there has been considerable study of the factors — such as culturally biased tests, poverty, and minority life experiences and values — that do not allow or encourage minority students to take full advantage of education.

Valdes believes that even language and cultural factors combined do not account for the history of poor academic achievement among children of immigrants. She cites research showing that the discrimination immigrants experience here, their particular location within the class structure, and their perception that they can’t improve their place in society are even more important contributors to children’s struggles in school. She reminds educators that teachers’ perceptions and the simplistic assumptions made by schools about parents and by parents about schools also affect students’ achievement.

Supporters of dual-language immersion pro-grams argue that this new approach will address more of the factors involved in school failure. They believe that dual-language programs will give minority children better access to the mainstream curriculum and their English-speaking peers, while at the same time giving legitimacy to the Spanish language and culture.

Valdes believes that language programs offer only a narrow solution to a far broader problem and can not, by themselves, significantly influence educational outcomes for these children. She stresses that we are experimenting in potentially dangerous ways with children’s lives. She urges everyone involved in this effort to recognize that language is not neutral and that language acquisition is extremely complex. It is important that due consideration be given to these difficult issues when discussing dual-language immersion programs with both majority and minority parents.

“Dual-Language Immersion Programs: A Cautionary Note Concerning the Education of Language-Minority Students” Harvard Educational Review Volume 67, Number 3, Fall 1997.

Published in ERN March 1998 Volume 11 Number 3

One Response to “Dual-language immersion programs”

  1. barbara greenway

    Dear Ms. Valdes,
    Having worked in a 98% Latino school District in Salinas Valley for more than 20 years, I have seen little improvement in literacy outcomes for ELL students. 70% enter kindergarten as much as 2 years behind in language, vocabulary and readiness concepts. More than 60% graduate from high school without proficient literacy skills in English. The students are kept in Spanish dominant or bilingual programing for the first 3-4 years of school life. They seem to have lost precious time to achieve fluent English literacy and most struggle to read and write through out school. I know dual emersion works well for enriched, middle class children who by 5 have well developed vocabulary and language skills. These children, when immersed in a second language French or Spanish program, can do very well. I would need to be immersed to learn a second language fluently; and most successful Latinos in our community report that they were immersed in English from an early age. Just about everyone who is fluently bi-literate is likely to have been immersed in their second language.
    Decades of failed bilingual education in California should motivate researchers to understand why – before millions more children miss out on succeeding in school, never becoming functionally literate, and have limited opportunity to pursue dreams and ambitions. Please direct me to relevant research on this subject. Thank you.


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