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As bilingualism becomes a coveted commodity, the popularity of dual-language immersion continues to grow. Native English speakers are building their linguistic skills in a wide variety of programs teaching highly sought after languages. But what is the upshot for English learners in two-way immersion? It has the potential to become a resource that benefits English-dominant students as it further marginalizes language minority students. Making social justice central to these programs is key to averting this unintended consequence.

In a break with tradition, more schools are adopting language-immersion programs, in which English and another language are integrated into the curriculum and instruction. The Center for Applied Linguistics, a D.C.-based nonprofit, found an exponential growth in foreign-language immersion in a comprehensive survey of public schools and some private schools. Over a 40-year span language-immersion schools grew steadily, with the largest increase in the decade that started in 2001. Spanish remains the most popular for immersion programs at 45 percent, followed by French (22 percent) and Mandarin (13 percent), with a wide array of languages rounding out the list of 22 selections—from Hawaiian and Cantonese to Japanese and Arabic.

As two-way immersion grows, the variety of language options now available marks a turning point in the evolution of bilingual education. Once the mainstay of immigrant children, bilingual instruction has a new band of converts: English-speaking parents, lawmakers, and advocacy groups. Research shows that students gain cognitive and academic benefits from bilingualism. Yet an overarching reason for the heightened interest is giving U.S. students a jump on the competition in a global workforce. And some activists find even with this flurry of attention, equal access to dual-immersion remains a thorny issue and persistent challenge.

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(Photo: John Gastaldo / San Diego Union-Tribune) 

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November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to honor the culture, traditions and history of America’s indigenous people. One aspect of building a brighter future for tribal communities is the preservation and revitalization of Native languages, the focus of my latest piece that looks at efforts to teach students in dual-language programs — which are gaining traction and growing fast.

Nationally, bilingual education has been rechristened “dual-language programs” and is gaining fresh appeal. The templates of dual-language instruction vary—some programs transition students into English-only after several years while others emphasize ongoing two-language immersion at different ratios—but the common strand is an attempt to build literacy and proficiency in more than one language. The approach is found to outperform traditional ESL, where lessons are typically taught entirely in English. Research shows two-language instruction is linked to numerous positive and long-term benefits, including stronger literacy skills, narrowing of achievement gaps, and higher graduation rates. And the academic advantages of two-language programs even carry over to an unexpected group: children who only speak English at home. A Michigan State University study of Texas elementary students in 2013 found “a substantial spillover effect”—higher math and reading scores—for children from English-only homes who were enrolled in schools with bilingual education programs.

Beyond the politics are parents seeking a quality education for their children and the real-life costs of English-only education. The goals of dual-language are closely related and intertwined—better teaching models for non-English speakers, fostering cross-cultural understanding, and in special settings reclaiming disappearing Native American languages—and the approach is earning praise.

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I took Latin in high school. This basically qualifies me to read prescription abbreviations. In retrospect I wish I had studied French or Spanish. I don’t take excessive pride in the fact that I only speak English – I find it limiting and somewhat stifling. In a country as diverse as the U.S., being bilingual is something to treasure rather than discard or reject. And when the push for children to learn English in schools supplants their first language, culture and heritage, we have to ask whether something critical is lost.

Even as states struggle to reach a common definition of what it means to be an English language learner, the proportion of these students continues to rise—and with it, the temperature of debate surrounding the purpose and goals of bilingual education. It remains an unsettled issue that continues to challenge America’s self-image as welcoming and inclusive: The value of linguistic assimilation is pitted against the values of a culturally diverse nation of immigrants, leaving education systems and its students caught in political crosshairs. The divide is exacerbated by financially strapped schools with skyrocketing numbers of English learners—meeting all of the mandates for their education can be expensive—and the national discourse on immigration, which saw the 2016 presidential contender Donald Trump advise his competitor Jeb Bush to “really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”

Today, schools are still twisting in the wind of politics, with 31 states passing laws naming English the official language over the last two centuries and voters in CaliforniaArizona, and Massachusetts approving ballot measures in recent decades that replace bilingual education with English-only policies. Meanwhile, a growing contingent of educators are promoting the cultivation of bilingualism to support the social and emotional needs of English language learners.

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