The United States Is Falling Behind in Bilingual Education, Why Does It Matter?

Bilingual Education U.S. BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of soe.lmu.edu

Too often, people mistake bilingual education as something for children with learning disabilities. Little do they know, there are actually huge developmental advantages for dual language learners. In fact, kids in English as a Second Language classes are capable of winning science fairs because children immersed in courses in their native language not only feel empowered academically, socially, and emotionally experts say, sometimes they even surpass their “regular education” peers when the programs are continuous and of good quality.    

Bilingual education — the practice of teaching non-English-speaking children in their native language while they learn English — helps Latino students advance. Still, many districts have fought to keep foreign languages out of schools. 

Although studies show that the study of a second language has been linked to improved learning in other subjects, enhanced cognitive ability, and the development of empathy, conservative English-only advocates have held back its solidification in the U.S., leaving them and other minorities at a disadvantage. 

Those who are pro-English or English-only enthusiasts, like Donald Trump was, have fought bilingual education efforts for decades, favoring English immersion policies instead. 

When you compare Americans to the rest of the world, we are a monolingual nation despite our touting of multiculturalism. 

According to the most recent data on language learning in the European Union, 66 percent of all European adults say having some knowledge of more than one language. The share of U.S. adults who report similar experience is closer to 20 percent, and very few speak, read, or write proficiently in a second language. An estimated 400 million Chinese students are now learning English, compared with about 200,000 U.S. students currently studying Chinese.

Latin American immigrants need the most support in acculturating, but without losing their Spanish, which is a useful skill for life and can only be maintained through bilingual education. 

Roughly 3.8 million students in U.S. schools are native Spanish-speakers who are not proficient in English. They make up the bulk of the approximately 5 million students nationwide identified as English language learners, the fastest-growing demographic in schools – and the lowest-performing, as judged by achievement tests and graduation rates, reports USA Today. 

Blame it on a shortage of qualified foreign language teachers and the long and complicated history of bilingual education, with its anti-immigrant undertones. Still, we as a nation have a lot of catching up to do. 

An important research paper published by Cambridge University Press revealed that in order to close the achievement gap in literacy between English learners and native English speakers, an estimated five to six years of high-quality, long-term dual-language programs can accomplish this.

Thirty-two years of ongoing, large-scale research validates the power of bilingual schooling. Yet, politicking has resulted in a constant shift between tolerance and repression on bilingual education’s advancement depending on who is in the White House. 

And after Trump’s wave of anti-bilingual education sentiments, if we don’t increase the number of schools offering bilingual education, it could leave the nation at a competitive disadvantage in an increasingly global, multilingual society. 

Bilingual education’s benefits are many; bilingual and Latinx teachers are few

While the pressure to learn a second language in an English-speaking nation is low because English is the most studied language worldwide, we still risk being left out of any conversation that does not take place in English. 

Understanding, speaking, reading, and writing in other languages is critical to success in business, research, and international relations.  The U.S. needs more people to speak languages to provide social and legal services for a changing population of people who hail from neighboring countries in Latin America.

While states like New York and California have been active in providing bilingual education for quite some time, the barrier to further expanding dual-language programs remains. There is a critical shortage nationwide of teachers who can speak and teach in Spanish and English. More than 30 states reported critical shortages in English as Second Language teachers and world language teachers, reported USA Today.

Imagine a school where its teaching body actually looked like its students. Today’s schools still don’t represent the demographical figures of a country where over half of its student population is non-white. More importantly, aside from dreaming of a harmonious vision of a multicultural classroom that included the teacher, if there were more Latinx teachers in our schools, English learners would simply perform better academically, studies have shown. 

Students benefit from having teachers that reflect their cultural, racial, and linguistic backgrounds. Recognition of cultural background information could help in creating numerous bonding moments between pupil and teacher. 

There is a concerning demographic mismatch between teachers and students in our schools, reports The Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford. For Latinx teachers and students, this is especially true. Let’s begin with the obvious: Latinx students comprise the largest minority demographic in the nation’s schools, accounting for 22 percent of students as of 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  Sadly, only 9 percent of the teacher workforce is of Hispanic origin in comparison. 

“I find that schools with a higher share of Hispanic teachers tend to have a higher percentage of Hispanic students taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses,” says Diana Quintero, a Research Analyst at the Brown Center on Education Policy, in her blog. “Though these results do not prove a causal relationship, they suggest a potential channel through which attracting and retaining teachers of color—particularly Hispanic teachers—might benefit students.” 

Though white teachers may have empathetic capabilities with non-white students— I certainly grew up with ones who encouraged me to work hard — evidence suggests that there are teachers whose perceptions about a student’s ability and behavior are influenced by the race of the student. That’s why more Latinx teachers are needed; instinctively, they are more likely to motivate students to push themselves harder and reach higher goals than those that society expects of them, which is often less. 

It’s often the case that teachers and students of similar backgrounds — whether it’s a Puerto Rican teacher and a Guatemalan-American student — will have more potential for a deep and meaningful cultural exchange than a white and a nonwhite will. 

Latinx teachers are more likely to plan lessons that are culturally sensitive to their nonwhite students as well, serving as what the academic world calls “cultural translators.” 

Furthermore, a study showed that if teachers are familiar with students’ cultural backgrounds, they might be less likely to succumb to unconscious bias stemming from negative stereotypes that alter how teachers interact with students, especially if they hold stereotypes related to perceived academic ability. 

If we want a future generation of multilingual children to run our country, we need talented bilingual teachers and quality, long-running programs to do this. Then, the world will be our ostra.