Bilingual Language Learning

The Importance of Bilingual Education

My journey in bilingual education began when I moved to the United States from Peru to pursue my Master’s degree. My initial goal was to return after receiving my degree to teach in Peru as a native Spanish speaker who was also fluent in English. But when I arrived here, I was shocked to learn the history of bilingual education in the United States – especially the one geared towards Mexican-American and Latinx families. Most of the services for these populations had a transitional nature, using instruction in Spanish as a temporary tool to then immerse students in English as quickly as possible. This “swim or sink” approach counters the vast amount of research on bilingualism and second language acquisition, which consistently sustain the importance of the development of literacy in the students’ first language in order to learn a second one.

The Benefits of Bilingualism

There are a wide variety of benefits of bilingual education. We’ve found that bilingual people have more advanced cognitive skills than those who speak only one language; additionally, they develop multicultural skills to be able to thrive in an increasingly diverse society. It’s even been shown to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. For Latino and Mexican American children living in the United States whose first language is Spanish, it also connects them with their heritage and family. Often, when a student is prevented from developing his or her first language, they cut ties with their family in their country of origin. Bilingualism helps bridge this generational divide.

Using Biliteracy Camps to Help Close the Achievement Gap

As a graduate student at Boise State University, I began work with Literacy sin Fronteras – or Language Without Borders – a biliteracy camp initiative.  These biliteracy camps help try to bridge bilingual teacher preparation programs with dual language schools within the surrounding community serving Mexican-American and Latinx families. As a co-manager of this initiative, I would host the after-school biliteracy camps with the help of a group of pre-service bilingual teachers at the university campus. The goal was to have these pre-service teachers hone their teaching skills by developing biliteracy lessons for Mexican-American and Latinx children from a local dual language program for students to develop skills in reading and writing. While children were busy in their biliteracy classes, parents would engage with faculty and graduate students to develop a curriculum based on their interests. For example, many expressed interest in completing their GED. While I was only involved for a year, I found this rare initiative to be fascinating. Modeled after a similar program conducted at the University of Texas – El Paso, we found that it could be beneficial in all states – not just border states.

Seeking to Increase Effectiveness of Bilingual Education

As I mentioned earlier, a transitional approach to bilingual education (be it in two-way or one-way dual language programs) can be detrimental to students’ academic and linguistic development. Typically, programs with this inclination initially use instruction in Spanish until the number of hours of Spanish instruction diminishes and gives way to a largely English-only curriculum. I’ve found that there is a lack of consistency in how languages are taught, for how long and how to integrate content and language instruction. While there are excellent programs in other states, there are things that are lost in translation when importing them due to different reasons—language ideologies, policies, training, socio-cultural factors, etc. Because of that, I’d like to see how dual-language teachers adapt new training and professional development into their own classrooms and examine their agency as language policy-makers at schools.

Creating a Linguistically-Inclusive Classroom

Most students receiving English Language Learner (ELL) instruction are in mainstream classrooms. They are either “pulled out” – meaning they are taken out of the classroom to receive instruction – or they are “pushed in” – where specialists come to their classroom to deliver ELL instruction. This can often create a disconnect between ELL students and their mainstream peers. One way to avoid this is to welcome the use of primary language in the classroom. It is important to provide a space in the mainstream classroom for ELL students to use their first language. Teachers should welcome contributions in a student’s first language. Allow them to use their language in the first stages of writing and encourage peers to work together – especially if they speak the same first language. Students can often be afraid of participating in their mainstream classroom and teacher might be afraid of “losing control” of the classroom. The more you encourage the student to be proud of their language, the less afraid they are to learn English. This helps them develop motivation and pride in their own competency and development of language skills.

Blanca Caldas Chumbes

About the Author

Blanca Caldas Chumbes

  • Assistant Professor
  • Department of Curriculum and Instruction
  • College of Education and Human Development

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