A recent New York Times op-ed offered compelling arguments for the benefits of bilingualism. Knowing more than one language is an asset for navigating a global world: English may have become a lingua franca, but so much gets lost in the translation from one language to another that it can only help “when in Rome (or Beijing or Mexico City) to speak as the Romans (or Chinese or Mexicans) do.”
Bilingualism Enhances Cognitive Functioning
Recent studies have shown that bilingualism improves cognitive skills and can even be a defense against dementia in old age. The New York Times op-ed‘s Yudhijit Bhattacharjee cites research that suggests that being bilingual gives a person a “heightened ability to monitor the environment”:
“Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.
These and other benefits are often cited in efforts across the US to create dual-language-immersion programs.
Efforts To Create Two-way Language Programs
California students can earn a “state seal of biliteracy” on their high school transcripts and diplomas; this signifies that they have attained fluency in English and a second language. In 2011, 6,000 graduating California seniors received such a seal.
In two-way immersion programs, native speakers of English and native speakers of a second language learn both languages in the same classroom, with the goal of students being fully bilingual, biliterate students by the end of elementary school. 14-year-old Amber Sevilla has been attending the two-way language program at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco and is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Up until middle school, most of her classes, including math, were in Chinese; she now takes health education and college and career education in Chinese. She says that the program is “hard work, but … worth it.”
For a program to be considered a two-way one, at least one-third of the students must be native speakers of the second language. As Laurie Olsen, a national expert on English-learners who designed the two-way language instructional model in use at San Jose’s Gardner Academy, emphasizes, educators need to “make sure that programs do not “become dominated by middle- and upper-income students whose parents want them to learn a second language.”
Dual-language programs have been shown to aid in closing the achievement gap between English learners and those fluent in English. Education Week notes that, in North Carolina, English-speaking African-American students in dual-language programs outscore their peers in English-only programs. A 2002 study by Virginia P. Collier, a professor emeritus of education at George Mason University, and Wayne P. Thomas found that English-language learners in dual-language programs were not only “able to close the achievement gap with their native English-speaking peers”; the programs also fostered other “important intangible goals, such as increased parental involvement.”
Spanish is the most commonly taught second language in dual programs, followed by Mandarin Chinese and French; Utah is also offering a program teaching Portuguese. The interest in bilingualism and acknowledgement of its benefits is very good news for teachers of foreign languages who have too often see programs and positions cut.
With growing demand for bilingual and biliterate workers, the advantages of bilingual education are simply more and more apparent. Back in 1998 in California, voters approved the Proposition 227 ballot initiative which required school districts to replace many bilingual education programs with English-immersion ones. But now the tide is indeed turning and not a moment to soon, to help prepare students be part of tomorrow’s — today’s — global economy.
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