Two Ways to Be Bilingual: Dual Language vs. English Immersion

The growth in the Latino school-age population contains the seed for countless education stories, about issues ranging from funding to curriculum to overcrowding.

One topic particularly worth examining is the effectiveness of dual language vs. English immersion programs–an ongoing debate among educators and academics for decades. The real story, of course, is in the people who are affected: the students, their families and the communities.

In dual language programs, there is an equal balance between students who are native Spanish speakers and those who are native English speakers, and the material is taught in both languages. The English immersion approach is exactly what it sounds like: Students are taught only in English.

For this story in the Wisconsin State Journal, Matthew DeFour looked at the challenges facing the Madison School District’s dual language program. In its eighth year, the program is both expanding to include languages other than Spanish even while it’s facing criticism that it has not helped close the achievement gaps between Latino and non-Latino students, English-language learners and English-proficient students.

Another story in the San Antonio Express-News focused on the growing number of dual language students in preschool and elementary school. The article lists several school districts that are expanding programs in the elementary level. The story states that “According to the Texas Two-Way Dual Language Education website, there are 29 dual-language programs in San Antonio public schools out of 352 in the state, and the numbers are growing.”

But the question remains: Which approach is more effective? One way to seek an answer is to look at data, studies and research that examine student outcomes.  Another way is to find students, parents and teachers and ask what they think. How did a dual language or English-only approach affect their lives–both inside and outside the classroom? Did they master English? How did that alter family dynamics, especially if the parents speak only Spanish?

In this piece by WGBH in Boston, Andrea Smardon looks at the impact of Massachusett’s English immersion law, which was passed in 2002, and talks to a student who says the English-only approach worked for him.

What is happening in your state or district? Do schools offer dual language or English-only? Or both?

Perhaps you could find a student or classsroom representing both types of programs to follow and profile for a story that brings the academic debate to the human level.

2 thoughts on “Two Ways to Be Bilingual: Dual Language vs. English Immersion

  1. As a certified bilingual teacher, and as one who experienced the English-immersion program as a child, I feel that success really comes down to the individual student. There are children who manage the challenge, especially in Kindergarten, of not becoming upset when they are unable to communicate verbally. Some role with the punches, others just cry…or literally run out of the classroom. One of the problems that I see in closing the achievement gap is the issue of how students are identified as English Language Learners. Is it really an issue of language, or is it an issue of exposure to expanded vocabulary? My former colleagues and I have a hunch that if we were to test native English speakers from homes where parents are unable to communicate with them frequently or who do not have a large vocabulary due to lack of education, then perhaps they too would be labeled English language learners.

  2. We have both bilingual and English immersion in California. It really boils down to how well programs are being implemented. In good quality bilingual programs, we see that kids score comparably to English immersion or they outperform their peers in English. In poorly implemented bilingual programs, we may not see those results. As a bilingual coordinator that oversees transitional bilingual and dual immersion, I see well and poorly implemented programs. It’s not about whether bilingual programs, it’s about whether they are being implemented appropriately!

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