Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Dual-Language Programs Find a Growing Appeal among Native and Nonnative English Speakers

By Toni-Anne Richards Published November 9, 2015

This post discusses the growing demand for dual language programs throughout the United States and the statistical advantages to this form of language learning as opposed to more established methods.
By Toni-Anne Richards

Dual language programs first appeared in the 1960s to address the needs of Spanish-speaking students in Florida and French-speaking students in Maine. In 1963, the Coral Way School in Miami, Florida became a pioneer for dual language learning by establishing a "Spanish for Spanish" program and becoming the first bilingual school in the United States with the goal of promoting bilingual fluency among all students. Once considered a novelty, dual-language programs are now being recognized as a benefit to both native and nonnative speakers and increasing in numbers across the country. In many New York City elementary schools, these programs have expanded with the primary goal of increasing access to English Language Learning (ELL) students, but have also attracted the parents of native English speakers who feel bi-literacy will give their children an advantage in the global economy. This fall alone, 39 programs were either created or expanded, bringing the grand total to 180. Despite reservations about the effectiveness and necessity of these programs, the test score results of bilingual students and enthusiastic requests from parents indicate a legitimacy and utility to these programs that has not been seen before.

Languages currently taught in these programs are usually tailored to the response of the lingual demographic of the local community in which the school is located. In New York City, some languages taught include Spanish, Haitian-Creole, Arabic, Chinese and French.  The overall structure of a program can vary among schools with math and reading classes being taught from 50-90% in the target language and the rest in English, or the language of instruction alternating daily. At the George Washington Elementary School in White Plains, NY, the language of instruction changes each day, for all subjects, with students switching to adjacent classrooms alternatively. Both classrooms are set up in a similar manner to ease the transition, with wall posters in English in one classroom and Spanish in the next. Much of the organization depends on the school's population, availability of certified bilingual and early education teachers, and budget. An ideal classroom makeup would have 1/3rd native English speakers, 1/3rd nonnative speakers and 1/3rd bilingual to facilitate the learning process for everyone involved. Usually, it is half native and half nonnative speakers, but the learning process is still effective. It is during this childhood stage that the brain is most adaptable to language retention and being surrounded by peers who tend to learn through experience encourages informal language lessons through basic interactions.

However, the structured English immersion (SEI) form of teaching is still the dominant method among schools. In these programs, teaching is focused on English grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation with subjects being taught in English at the student's comprehension level. Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) allows students to receive instruction in their native language from bilingual teachers and gradually move towards English. In comparison to these options, dual language programs often offer a better alternative, if the metrics of success are measure by standardized tests. A 2002 George Mason University study using data from 15 states over the course of 18 years compared students in dual language programs to those in transitional bilingual or English-only classes. It revealed that the dual language model closed the gap between ELL and native speakers. In many cases, it also nurtured a more inclusive environment in which friendships that crossed racial and socioeconomic barriers were sustained. In 2011, the dual language program at the George Washington Elementary served a school population that was 50% Latino, 20% black and 30% white or another race. The program boosted involvement by Latino parents, fostered cross-cultural appreciation among students and helped 2nd grade dual language students outperform their peers on the Developmental Reading Assessment by 8% .

The ESL Push-In and Pull-Out method has tutors work alongside teachers in classrooms to help them learn English, which emphasizes a steadier build towards English comprehension. By comparison, dual language is a more cost effective method that can address the literacy needs of English language learners within a regular classroom setting and without the need for additional teachers.     

The general claim that dual language programs hinder the progress of English language learning for the benefit of English-speaking parents who want their children to learn a second language ignores the statistical evidence of the program's advantages. In 2014, Stanford University study showed that, in the long-term, Latinos in two-language programs performed better on the state's English Language Arts test than students in English immersion programs, going from 0.15 standard derivations below their peers in second grade to 0.2 derivations above them by eight grade. Also, English-only programs don't get more people speaking English because they will eventually learn English in some way. Whether or not they will have good literacy and education to go along with that depends on the school.

The growing enthusiasm for dual language programs indicates a demand for an avenue to increase bilingualism among English speakers as well. In Utah, 9% of the state's public elementary students are enrolled in dual-language programs while 10% of all students in Portland, Oregon, and nearly 1 in 5 kindergarteners, also participate. As far as benefits go, the programs programs seem to serve the crucial need of teaching English language learners in a more effective way over the long-term while giving willing native speakers the opportunity to learn another language. In an increasingly globalized world, this might not be a bad thing.