Speaking of Bilingual Education
Dr. Deborah Palmer is a leading national expert on creating bilingual education settings where students can thrive and training teachers for multilingual and multicultural classrooms.
What way of teaching a second language works best with early elementary children?
A: Research shows two-way dual language bilingual classrooms seem to be most effective.
What is a two-way dual language program?
A: In two-way dual language bilingual education classes you have English-speaking students and non-English-speaking students in the class, and all students are taught in English as well as the minority language. In Texas schools the most common non-English language in these programs is Spanish.
How much time is devoted to teaching each language?
A: In a well-implemented two-way dual language program, language use is intentional. As far as how much time is devoted to each language in class, there are “50/50 programs,” which divide the time evenly between the two instructional languages. There also are “90/10 programs” and the positive learning outcomes for these appear to be more powerful. In the 90/10, children start out in pre-K or kindergarten working in the non-English language for 90 percent of a day or week and in English for 10 percent of the time.
They continue to do this through 12th grade?
A: In the ideal 90/10 program teachers gradually progress to a 50-50 approach, and by fourth grade students are working in English half of the time and in the other language half of the time. This continues through 12th grade, and they graduate with a dual language diploma. There aren’t many programs in Texas – yet – that do this through graduation.
Even though they’re only hearing and using English 10 percent of the time, the students still manage to become proficient in it?
A: Definitely. Studies show that students in 90/10 programs gain English proficiency at the same rate as they do in 50/50 programs.
That’s very surprising – why is it the case?
A: One extremely important fact to remember is that skills in a first language seem to predict your level of skills in a second language. Research shows that if your first language is strongly supported, respected and honored in the classroom – and you’re immersed in it there – you’re going to learn a second language quicker, easier and better. Children also perform better academically and build stronger language skills if their native culture is respected and recognized in class.
Do you have any current projects in the works that address early elementary dual language programs?
A: I do, in fact. I’m working with Austin ISD to examine the ways in which the implementation process for a two-way dual language program affects its success, and we’re doing a district-wide survey of teachers’ language ideologies as they implement dual language. I should have some results to report in the very near future.
On the topic of learning additional languages in general, is it true that it’s much easier for children to learn a new language than it is for adults?
A: It does tend to be but not for the reasons most people think. Before children are five, they’re still acquiring basic grammar and vocabulary in their primary language If children are exposed to a second language before the age of five, then I like to think of it as a “two-fer” – they can become fluent in two languages and be considered “primary bilinguals.” Another reason it may seem like children learn a new language more easily is because they tend to be more open and less anxious or inhibited when it comes to trying something new – they’re willing to jump right in. Also, young children have less to learn in order to sound like their age-peers in a second language, so their language agility can be deceptive.
The truth is, adults or older children with more fully developed primary languages have more tools to draw on to learn their second language, and they often do it better and faster than young children.
Photo by: Christina S. Murrey