The value of bilingual education

Madison Smoak

It did not occur to me until the final week of my German homestay that speaking English is a privilege. The other two American students and I were relying solely upon English to communicate with students from Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, and Norway. English is the third or fourth languages that these non-American students knew and yet, it dominated every dinner conversation. This made me ask myself: why had they continued to meet us through our first language at the cost of their own native language? The lesson that I was learning extended far beyond language. At the dinner table every night I was confronted with a vast difference in how American and non-American students approached language learning. It taught me humility and pressed me to reflect upon my own privilege.

According to a 2017 survey, only 20% of students in the United States will study and become fluent in a second language before college. Historically, a majority of schools focus attention on teaching American English. As a result, native languages tend to take a back seat in school curriculum and are becoming scarcer. This also means that generations of families are becoming isolated from their own grandchildren. Although this has changed somewhat in the past three years, there are still a multitude of Americans opposed to foreign language education requirements in the fear of their children becoming “tongue-tied.” But is this fear really something that should keep us from encouraging bilingualism?

Language stands at the heart of what it means to become better citizens and engage learning in its fullest. How can we appreciate all that the world has to teach us if we do not know other languages? We should begin broadening our learning by making sure that academic success includes a robust approach to language acquisition. For instance, speaking English is a requirement for the majority of careers in the United States. Canalino Elementary School demonstrates how this affects families involved in public schooling. Many of the native Spanish-speaking families expressed concern at the formation of a bilingual classroom environment because they wanted their children to focus only on learning English for their children’s future success. In recent years, however, more career pathways are desiring employees who are bilingual and even biliterate. This is a positive shift in the way families approach their children’s educational goals. 

  On July 1, 2017, Proposition 58 went into effect in California. This proposition gives public schools control over dual language acquisition programs. Schools such as Adelante Charter began to work with students entering as second language learners to encourage them to become bilingual and biliterate in K-6. Programs such as these challenge students to learn another language while ensuring that their native language is not lost. Mother and professor Cheri Larsen Hoeckley expressed that exposing her daughter to this form of education helped to ensure that she was more comfortable in a variety of cultural backgrounds than she otherwise would have living in Santa Barbara, CA. The value that comes from students encountering and learning another language is partly found in the way that it helps them see other cultures. The ability to speak another language encourages us to see and experience another culture more visibly and deeply. There is tremendous value in having students live outside of their own culture and comfort zone. 

Among the general benefits that bilingual education can offer, such as listening comprehension, reading skills, reducing inhibitions, and working memory, the most important is the role it plays is in the relationships that are created once language barriers are crossed. By giving students access to bilingual education in their classrooms, we are giving them a better sense of their roles in both immediate and global communities.