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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)