We live in an incredibly diverse society. Driving through Los Angeles, one can see the full spectrum of color, language, and culture, especially when looking at a school playground. This leads to a controversial question: should schools, which are increasingly diverse, teach exclusively in English? What are the benefits of bilingual education, if any?
Up until November 2016, Proposition 227 required students in California to be taught in English only, except in cases where parents signed a waiver. Historically, most people thought that teaching young children two languages would confuse them. People also wanted to establish a singular national identity through English instruction in our education system. However, the U.S. never made English the country’s official language. As it turns out, most of the arguments against bilingual education were based on faulty research.
Today, many scholars and policymakers understand the importance of bilingual education. In a letter to the Atlantic, Vanessa Bertelli, Executive Director of the D.C. Language and Immersion Project, writes that, “…all children benefit from bilingual education, regardless of the language spoken at home. With a bold plan for bilingual education for all, we can build a more desirable and linguistically and culturally competent workforce—and a more equitable society.”
We are embracing the dual language trend in west Los Angeles, and children love it. Several schools in the area feature prominent dual language programs, not only in Spanish, but also Chinese, Mandarin, and Japanese. Broadway Elementary school in Venice offers a 50/50 dual program in both Chinese / Mandarin and Spanish. Edison Language Academy provides a 90/10 dual language program in Spanish. Saint Sebastian Catholic School’s immersion program splits 50/50 Spanish/ English, and El Marino Language School teaches a radical 90/10 program in both Japanese and Spanish.
So, what’s all the hype about bilingual education? Well, Bilingual children demonstrate a host of cognitive, social, and academic benefits. Research shows bilingualism improves children’s communication skills and gives them an edge over their monolingual peers in information processing and focus. The advantage is gained by having to manage the optimal use of each language in the right context, which increases the development of attentional control and task-switching skills.
Not sold yet? Well, the benefits also transcend academics. Studies show children who speak two or more languages tend to be happier and have better attendance and less behavioral problems. Additionally, since the brain is essentially a large muscle, it gets more exercise when having to alternate between languages on the fly. This critical exercise reduces the risk of dementia and other cognitive disorders later in life.
Arguably, the most important benefit of bilingual education is the promotion of equity. Traditionally, languages spoken by minority groups, such as Spanish, have been undervalued by the mainstream society. In schools, children were told to check their Spanish (or other languages) at the door, which then framed English as a superior, more desirable language. On the contrary, bilingual education teaches all kids that their home languages and backgrounds are important and appreciated. This message is extremely important for building inclusive learning communities that value all members, regardless of color, culture, or language.
If your child is struggling to learn a second language, or wants to give it a try, check out Club Z! Tutoring’s foreign language support.