Bilingual education makes dollars, sense for students

Josephine MacLean

Bilingual education gives kids more than just the ability to speak two languages. Despite this, bilingual education programs are not being implemented as numerously or as rapidly as they should be due to outdated fears. Although the number of these programs have seen an increase in recent years, there exists an antiquated notion that teaching a child two languages will undermine English, and this still remains a barrier to the widespread acceptance of these increasingly necessary programs. 

Some educators even believe that a dual language program could be harmful to English language learners.

“Oftentimes district administrations are under the impression that the sooner kids are immersed in [English] the faster they learn English,” said Rebecca Callahan, associate professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction.

In fact, it’s the other way around. While being completely immersed in another culture may get rid of an accent, kids whose primary language is Spanish suffer more from being transplanted into a totally English environment.

“Research says … the more primary language support they get, the better their academic development and foundation,” Callahan said.

Bilingual education shouldn’t just be for kids learning English. Dennis Chapman is a father whose fourth and fifth graders attend Gattis Elementary School in Round Rock, a school that offers an optional dual language program. 

“I think just being around people from different cultures year after year, they’re going over to other people’s houses that speak Spanish in the home,” Chapman said. “I know that the last bilingual [program] meeting that we had, they showed the test scores, and all the kids in our program had higher test scores on average. … As a group, they were in a really high percentile compared to the entire district’s.”    

Chapman’s observations match the research. In 1999, researcher Ellen Bialystok found that “control” (the ability to be selectively attentive) develops earlier in bilingual children, leading to higher test scores. Another study from 2013 found that, in 5- and 7-year-olds, bilingual students had better conflict resolution skills than monolinguals.

“Bilinguals are used to looking at and recognizing that every situation and context has two different perspectives,” Callahan said. “You can draw from whatever language works best; you can switch back and forth. So when kids approach a problem, [bilinguals] are at an advantage when you can think of different ways to do it.”

The benefits of bilingual education are becoming too great to ignore, and it extends past test scores. Kids educated bilingually are more empathic. A study done in Southern California in 2014 found that bilinguals become more likely to attain not only a job but higher paying jobs than monolinguals.

Dual language education would allow all American kids the opportunity to be competitive in the job market, develop stronger academic foundations and expand their cultural awareness. Why aren’t we doing this?

MacLean is an advertising freshman from Austin. Follow her on Twitter @maclean_josie.