• Rick Joseph

Literacy in Two Languages: Being Bilingual is Better

How many languages do you speak? Chances are, if you are like many native-born Americans - the answer is a Only English.

Students at Marquette Elementary School in Muskegon, however, learn in both Spanish and English in the school’s dual language immersion program. The idea is that by the end of 8th grade, students will be prepared to enter high school fluent in two languages, regardless of their native tongue. The results are astonishing.

Kids begin in kindergarten learning in classrooms where 90% of the instructional language is Spanish and 10% is English. Slightly more than half of the students come from homes where English is the home language while the rest are from families where Spanish is the parent’s first language. This model of bilingual education is known as an “additive model” in that students “add” a language to their first language without losing the capacity to listen, speak, read or write in their home language. It works.

Dual language programs have been in place in the United States since the late 1960’s, when educators realized the power of harnessing the potential of language-minority communities to create language additive environments for the benefit of all. Native English speakers learn English and acquire a second language. Spanish speakers retain their native language while learning English.

Historically, the United States has had a love-hate relationship with bilingual education which may mirror the immigration debate. There is no doubt that language itself carries a vast of array of not only cultural but political implications. Few people doubt the cognitive benefits of knowing more than one language. The advantages of being multilingual and multicultural are self-evident from the perspective of the business world and the competitive marketplace. At the same time, there are the voices of those who seek to build walls - literally and figuratively - which may dampen the enthusiasm necessary to create and sustain robust models to cultivate bilingual education.

At Marquette, the community has seen the profound impact of the school’s dual language immersion program in helping sustain a healthy school and attract students to the district. Principal Kristina Precious need look no farther than the scores of families who see the value in her program and seek to gain entrance for their children. “When you hear English-dominant children speaking Spanish without an accent, you know the program is working,” Precious says. If you ask the kids about learning Spanish, they just tell you it’s fun. The “fun factor,” of course, is one of the reasons the program succeeds.

The dedication and passionate commitment of teachers make the dual language immersion program happen on a daily basis. They see the value of this approach in the natural way their students acquire language without consciously realizing they are learning a second language. This is one of the essential differences that sets effective dual language immersion programs apart from much more common world language programs where kids attend “Spanish class.” None of us are conscious of our ability to understand and speak our first language. By providing natural language learning environments, dual language immersion programs create a very authentic opportunity to learn a second language.

I truly believe we continue to have a vast untapped potential of language learning in the United States, especially in communities where immigrants continue to arrive and provide access to native speakers. For the kids at Marquette Elementary, it’s just how they do school.

Students at Marquette Elementary use a multi-sensory approach to learning in their science class. All teaching and learning is conducted in Spanish

Dynamic teaching methods engage students and make learning fun

Students from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds benefit from dual language immersion at Marquette Elementary

The smiles on the faces of the students tell the real story of motivated, engaged learners

Students progress in their language learning by using Spanish in all subject areas

Principal Kristina Precious with a kindergarten friend who will be bilingual by 8th grade