How can we support kids in learning more than one language?

Those who know more than one language have a competitive edge. The LEAF Project, CC BY-SA

There is little doubt that knowing more than one language carries tremendous advantages.

Young bilinguals are known to be flexible thinkers and better problem solvers. They have a competitive edge in the labor market, with those fluent in English along with another language showing higher earnings. What’s more, research shows that knowing more than one language could even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia by two to four years.

Most people have come to agree that it is necessary to know more than one language. Over 70% of respondents in a recent study conducted in Florida agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that all students should learn an additional language of their choice.

The question is, how can we support our children in learning more than one language?

I have been a bilingual educator for over 20 years. I have worked with teachers and conducted many classroom observations and program evaluations. One bilingual education model that research has shown to be particularly effective is “Two-Way Immersion,” or TWI.

How the program works

TWI programs are bilingual programs designed to build high levels of bilingual proficiency.

Students who are already fluent in English but want to learn another language are taught along with students who are fluent in a language other than English. These students are also in the process of learning English as a second language.

Some programs teach 50% of the time in English and 50% of the time in a partner language (eg, Spanish, Korean, Chinese). Other programs immerse all students first in the partner language and later (by fourth or fifth grade) get to a 50%-50% level in both languages.

The integration of these two groups of native language speakers (eg, English and Spanish) is one of the reasons that the program works so well. Both groups of students have the chance to practice the language they are learning not only with the teacher but also with their peers in the classroom.

The TWI programs achieve results by integrating language learning. woodleywonderworks, CC BY

Another advantage of TWI programs lies in the fact that these are part of the regular academic programs (that is, they teach the regular curriculum as prescribed under the state and district content standards). The only difference is that they teach the content through two different languages.

I have seen the benefits firsthand of this model of teaching, for both students and families. A few years ago, a colleague and I researched the experiences of the graduating class of a longstanding TWI program.

Both English and Spanish language speakers told us it had helped them understand diversity and become better at collaborating with those who come from language and cultural backgrounds other than their own.

Being able to speak both Spanish and English, they said, allowed them to work in more and more diverse communities. They anticipated it would help them with their college applications as well as in finding a future job.

The native Spanish speakers in the program added that maintaining their Spanish skills helped maintain the connection not only with their immediate families in the US but also in their home country and with their communities.

What is the evidence?

Our observations are also supported by research.

Students who are enrolled in TWI programs consistently outperform similar students in regular education programs. TWI students score higher on standardized tests in both reading and math.

One study in California showed that while the state average score was around the 50th percentile in reading and math, TWI English proficient students scored around the 71th percentile in reading and math.

The difference for students still learning English was even more pronounced: English learners scored at the 50th percentile in seventh grade in math and reading whereas their peers scored below the 10th percentile.

This pattern has been noted for students who are still in the process of learning English and for students from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as for students with disabilities.

Students studying more than one language also do better academically. Osama ALASSIRY, CC BY-NC-SA

A recent study in North Carolina again supported the general positive achievement outcomes for TWI for different groups of students. The study also closely looked at African-American students enrolled in the program and found that these TWI students were one to two years ahead of their non-TWI peers in mathematics.

Not surprisingly, other states than North Carolina are looking to these and similar programs to support the achievement of all students. New York City opened over 40 dual language schools recently. And Utah passed a mandate for dual language education, including both foreign language programs and programs for students still learning English.

The reasons for success

So, what is it about the program that makes it so effective?

Academic achievement is enhanced because the curriculum is taught in and through both languages. Students are encouraged to operate at their highest cognitive level, regardless of their language ability.

So, even if you don’t happen to be fluent in the language of instruction (eg, English), you will still receive challenging, grade-level appropriate instruction through your native language.

Moreover, as these second language learners always get to work with multiple role models – the teacher, their more fluent peers, as well as the other second language learners – they are better supported.

The fact that both languages are used for teaching language arts, math, science and so forth also elevates the status of the partner language as a legitimate language for learning. For students whose language at home is not English, this is an important validation of their home culture and languages.

Also, as teachers use the language to teach other subjects such as math or science, students learn to use the language for real purposes, and don’t relate to it just as a set of grammar rules.

Appreciating diversity

The most important aspect of this learning is that each student plays a role in helping other learn the target language while learning themselves.

Through cooperative learning, teachers help TWI students build strong intergroup relationships and create opportunities for students to practice the language. TWI students thus develop an ability to work with students from diverse backgrounds, a prerequisite for today’s workforce.

Given the benefits of dual language education, and two-way immersion programs in particular, one has to wonder why more states are not incorporating these programs.

Just as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is part of college and workforce readiness, shouldn’t the ability to use English and a language other than English be considered a must-have for all our students?