Are All Dual Language Programs Created Equal?

Earlier this month, NPR published an article in which it highlighted the expansion of dual language programs in the city of Chicago. In the article, linked below, it was mentioned that CPS has expanded the number of dual language programs by adding an additional 26 over the last five years.

Link to article:

Sounds like a good thing, right? After all, isn’t the mission behind dual language programs to provide equal opportunities to all students to become bilingual, biliterate and multiculturally aware? The fact that CPS is rolling out so many programs in such as short period of time must mean that there is increased buy-in for dual language programs and that that buy-in is probably due to the incredible success dual language programs have demonstrated in educating ALL of its student participants, regardless of race, cultural and socio-economic background, doesn’t it?

For years, many English Language Learners have had to renounce their native language at the expense of learning academic English. Well-intentioned pediatricians or teachers have discouraged parents from speaking their native language at home as to not “confuse” their children. However, current research has shown the opposite: children who are exposed to two languages experience many benefits that their monolingual peers do not such as delayed memory loss, increased cultural awareness and increased ability to learn subsequent languages.

Dual language programs are created with the intention to promote social justice and dismantle inequities, specifically by providing English Language Learners with the language and literacy support that would allow them to develop English literacy skills, without having to renounce their heritage language and culture. When the program is implemented with fidelity, participants exhibit stronger academic growth than their monolingual peers. But like Dr. Sonia Soltero, a professor from Depaul University in Chicago, mentioned in the article linked above: “Dual language is a lofty goal and ambitious,.”It is set up for failure if you don’t have the teachers who are trained, [and] support and buy in from policymakers. If these things are not in place, this does not work very well.”

When shopping around for a school for my daughters, I decided early on that enrolling them in a dual language program would be non-negotiable. My oldest daughters, ages 8 and 6, can now understand Spanish and English perfectly and are learning to speak, read and write in both languages as well. However, I do often wonder how their language and literacy skills in both languages will develop as they get older. Will they prefer English over Spanish? Will they have have academic language gaps in one language or both? How can I, as a parent, tell that the dual language program my children are enrolled in is truly promoting their biliteracy development? How do I know that the dual language program that they are a part of is of high priority at their school?

I don’t think I can answer all of these questions with absolute certainty given that there is so much about dual language programs that I still need to learn, see and experience. However, there are a few characteristics that I have identified over the years, through my experiences as a dual language parent and educator, that are definitely worth noting. I believe that dual language schools that encompass many, or all, of the characteristics listed below have a higher probability of long-term program sustainability and are more likely to develop a program that is consistent, coherent and equitable.

  1. The long-term vision of the school is to expand to a “school-wide” dual language program: When a school has a “single -strand” dual language program, this means that there is only one group of students enrolled in the dual language program while the rest of the student population is enrolled in monolingual English classes. Dual language students that are part of a single strand program may attend school in a bubble and may feel isolated from the rest of their peers. However, a school that has a “school-wide” dual language program has implemented their program at a much larger scale. Most, if not all, of the students participate in the school’s dual language program and the value of the program is deeply instilled in the school culture. When implemented at a school-wide level, the dual language program shifts from being just another initiative that passes through the school to a majority priority. Decisions made about resources, staffing, professional development and all areas of the school structure are made with the dual language program in mind.
  2. There is buy- in from ALL stakeholders: When certain stakeholders have little to no knowledge about their school’s dual language program, are dismissive of the program or flat out oppose it, the greater the chances the program will fail at meeting the. needs of the students. However, when all members of the school community believe in the benefits of dual language, all of them will be much more likely to work together to sustain the program. Buy-in from all stakeholders creates a stronger sense of purpose for the school and when an entire group shares the same purpose, there will be more people working actively and collaboratively to accomplish all of the program’s goals.
  3. There is substantial collaboration and mutual respect between monolingual and dual language teachers: I’ve observed programs where dual and monolingual teachers appear to be at odds with one another. I’ve heard dual language teachers express resentment over the fact that they have to do twice as much planning as their monolingual peers or are pulled into more meetings while their monolingual peers are given more time to grade or course plan. Conversely, I’ve heard monolingual teachers express feelings of fear and anxiety over the possibility of losing their jobs for not being bilingual. I’ve met monolingual teachers who take the coursework towards an ESL/Bilingual endorsement only for job preservation and security, not because they have any real desire to learn more about biliteracy development. These feelings are valid and understandable, but not very conducive to the development of a dual language program that puts the needs of the students first. When monolingual and dual language teachers have a clear understanding of the unique role they ALL play in the success of their school’s dual language program, they are more likely to find the time and develop the desire to work collaboratively and respectfully to create curriculum that is intentional about taking the nuances of both languages into account.
  4. The dual language instructional and leadership team is mindful about promoting linguistic equity: Other fear-based comments that I’ve heard surrounding dual language instruction include: “We can’t offer Math or Science in Spanish because it’s too hard” or “If students take their Math classes in Spanish, they will perform poorly on the Math standardized tests that are administered in English.” I have seen Spanish (and other second languages of instruction) take a back seat to English once a sense of fear sets in that children will “fall behind” in English. These feelings of fear are heightened during testing years. When a school decides to implement a dual language program, it is crucial that both languages be given the same level of priority and are designated the same value. The same opportunities that students are given to learn academic English need to be provided in the second language of instruction. Designating “English-only” spaces send the message that the other language of instruction doesn’t really matter as much. If these types of practices continue to expand, dual language runs the risk of becoming another subtractive bilingual education program, instead of the additive model it was intended to be.
  5. The dual language instructional and leadership team is mindful about promoting cultural equity: For many years, American education has been monolithic in nature. Students, regardless of cultural and linguistic background, have had to read the stories of characters that lack any parallel to their own lives or study the history of the majority culture, while little to no attention is given to history of the people from their own cultural background. Today, educational policy makers are emphasizing the implementation of anti-racist curriculum, culturally responsive teaching and dual language programs as initiatives to dismantle the cultural hegemony that has long existed in traditional American curricula. But old habits are hard to break. What if these pernicious ideas somehow manage to weave themselves back into classrooms? Students in dual language programs not only need to study history and literature in other languages, but from different cultural lenses as well. The same amount of attention that is given to analyze the causes of the American Revolution needs to be given to the Mexican Revolution, for example.
  6. The dual language program provides equal access to those who need it the most : A major challenge presented in the article that I linked above is that the many of the dual language programs that have been launched in the last five years in Chicago all happen to be in neighborhoods that are gentrifying or have gentrified. The gentrification of neighborhoods like Logan Square and Avondale, has pushed out many of the low-income Spanish speaking families who have lived there for many years and are now unable to afford housing in those communities. Some of the schools in these communities, who have experienced low enrollment, have decided to implement dual language programs in order to make their school more appealing and marketable to prospective homeowners. These circumstances make dual language programs seem like a marketing ploy rather than a tool for real societal change.

I personally don’t have a problem with the expansion of dual language programs. In fact, I hope for a future where dual language programs are the norm. However, I also believe that all dual language program implementation should be thoughtful, coherent and equitable. Dual language instruction should place both languages of instruction, as well as their respective cultures, on equal footing. But above all, high-quality dual language programs need to be made available to the students they were meant to serve in the first place.

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