For decades, there has been a hot debate about the benefits (or not) of bilingual education for English language learners. Some argue that bilingual education slows down acquisition of a second language, while others assert that second language acquisition is improved within bilingual language programs; both sides can point to research “supporting” their stance, as often happens. So, what happens when you pick apart the literature and try to determine what really works?
Bilingual Education in American History
First, a brief history of bilingual education in the United States. Although, most of us tend to think of bilingual education, and second-language acquisition in schools as a more recent phenomenon, it’s history goes back two hundred years. In a paper by Brigham Young University, the beginnings of bilingual education can be traced back to the early 19th century, when children of different languages were brought together for the purposes of basic education. At that time, in addition to immigrants from Europe, Russia, and Asia, children from German and Dutch-speaking populations in Pennsylvania, Spanish speakers in Texas or French speakers in Louisiana were educated in their native language, as well as English.
Not all languages were treated equally, however. For decades, Native American languages were systematically devalued, for example. Additionally, in certain communities, particularly Asian -American and Mexican-American, non-English speakers were often segregated from society, in general.
With the onset of massive immigration waves in the early 1900s, a sort of backlash resulted in an assimilation model; the expectation that recent immigrants would Americanize and blend into American society, in culture and language became more and more prevalent. This resulted in what has been described commonly as a “sink or swim” pedagogy, where students remained in English only classrooms, sometimes for many years within the same grade level, until their language skills were sufficient enough that they could advance.(1) This push for “English-only” instruction continued through most of the first half of the 20th century.(2) But, in the 1960s the tide began to turn.
The Role of the 14th Amendment
Much of the legal basis for implementing bilingual education came about from a variety of lawsuits from the early to mid-1900s, arguing that the “sink or swim” policies of language instruction violated aspects of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states, in part, that, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” The argument being that “sink or swim” pedagogy violated parents’ rights to choose which language their children could be schooled in.
In 1968, the Bilingual Education Act was passed, demonstrating a notable shift in how the education of English language learners would be treated. The law provided funding to develop bilingual education programs but did not require bilingual education, considering it an option. Further legal decisions, notably Lau v. Nichols (1974), forced school districts and state governments to address English language learners in a starkly different way, moving the bilingual education “option” to a mandate.
Another Shift...Away from Bilingual Education
Although the Lau case “mandated” bilingual education, other legal proceedings were still in play, and one decision, in particular, virtually dismantled the Lau decision. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court related to the prevalence of under-funding minority schools. Argued under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the court ruled, however, that there is really no guaranteed and fundamental right to an education guaranteed by the Constitution. So, as has been pointed out by civil rights lawyer, Sandra Del Valle, if there is no constitutional right to an education, then “there is clearly no constitutional right to a bilingual education.” (3)
More recently, several states and districts have shifted to a more additive, than a subtractive view of bilingual education; in other words, shifting the goals of bilingual education from teaching English, or the socially dominant language, to English language learners (subtractive) to a more progressive viewpoint of developing bilingual and biliteracy skills to all students in the classroom (additive). For example, in a classroom where Spanish is the primary first language for immigrant students, ensuring that they achieve full fluency in English, as well as ensuring that English speaking students learn Spanish.
What Does the Research Say?
As one might expect, the research on bilingual education can be somewhat confounding. But, we do see some patterns when we peel back the layers of what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to bilingual education. Supporters and detractors of bilingual education in the United States each claim to have research backing up their positions. Needless to say, much of the discussion can tend to get politicized, so uncovering actual research results can clear things up for those who are open to exploring the topic.
In one comprehensive study, the effectiveness of different bilingual education models was examined. The study look at five different school districts, representing more than 210,000 Spanish-speaking, English language learners. The districts included an inner-city district, large and medium-sized urban districts, and two rural school districts. Students were followed as they went through the different programs from either kindergarten or first grade, through 4th or 5th grade. Programs varied from 90/10 two-way bilingual immersion to English mainstream programs where no bilingual or ESL services are made available. In a 90/10 model, the early elementary bilingual education program begins with 90% in the students' first language, and 10% in the target language, gradually increasing to 50/50 in upper elementary grades.
For the students in 90/10 two-way bilingual immersion programs, students completed 5th grade with scores in the 51st percentile on standardized English reading tests. Conversely, for students in an English mainstream program (no second language supports), the study found that they scored in the 12th percentile on standardized English reading tests, “accounted for the largest number of dropouts,” and demonstrated large decreases in achievement compared to their peers.
More recent research seems to support the model of support English language learners in two languages - their native language and their new language. For example, a major research review confirmed that oral and literacy proficiency in a student’s first language is the basis for success in achieving English language literacy. Another meta-analysis (4) found, consistently, that additive-type bilingual programs contributed significantly to achievement advantages for students enrolled in these types of programs.
Beyond success in school, and standardized test percentiles, perhaps the most important conclusion comes from an in-depth 2014 quantitative review by Callahan and Gándara. (5) This volume provides comprehensive analysis and the research-supported conclusion about the positive links between bilingualism and productive social and economic mobility in the United States.
The research, overall, tends to support bilingual education when it comes to academic and life success for English language learners. The confounding variable is the wide variety of bilingual programs available in the United States.
In our next article on bilingual education in the United States, we’ll take a much closer look at the different types of programs available, and student achievement related to each model. We’ll also look at trends in bilingual education programs in contemporary settings. Defining bilingual education might seem like a simple task, but it’s far from it. We’ll tackle that, next time!
---Alisa Cook, Chief Learning Delivery Officer
(1) Castillo, P.L. (2003). Implementation of change: The case of dual language programs in a South Texas school district (Unpublished doctoral dissertation), Texas A&M University Kingsville, Kingsville, TX
(2) García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, MA: Wiley/Blackwell.
(3) Del Valle, S. (2003). Language rights and the law in the United States: Finding our voices (Vol. 40). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
(4) McField, G., & McField, D. (2014). The consistent outcome of bilingual education programs: A meta-analysis of meta-analyses. In G. McField (Ed.), The miseducation of English learners (pp. 267–299). Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.
(5) Callahan, R., & Gándara, P. (Eds.). (2014). The bilingual advantage: Language, literacy and the US labor market. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.