In response to a recent article suggesting that the rising popularity of dual language programs could leave Latinos behind, we feel data, research and a broader perspective are needed. This complex topic cannot be reduced to Latinos versus rest of DC residents, nor can it make abstraction from the demographics and segregated geography of the District. The DC Language Immersion Project advocates for bilingual education for everybody, including but not limited to English language learners who are Latinos. We advocate for bilingual education to be systemically integrated into DC’s strategic education plan and this is why.
1. All kids benefit from learning in two languages, regardless of the language spoken at home
Sound longitudinal research shows that by 8th grade children in dual language programs outperform their peers in English reading by an entire school year, regardless of the language spoken at home. That is to say that bilingual education boosts English language learners’ proficiency in English reading just as much as English native speakers’ proficiency in English reading. On the basis of this research, it does not make equitable sense to prioritize one population over another on the basis of language spoken at home or ability to speak English.
2. Linguistic and cultural heritage matter and so do linguistic and cultural understanding
It is crucial that children who speak a language other than English be allowed to retain that language, particularly if their families do not speak English, as language is the basis of close family ties and strong sense of identity. But linguistic and cultural understanding are also the basis of mutual respect and social cohesion. In an increasingly diverse and multilingual District of Columbia, learning in a context in which two languages and cultures have equal footing not only empowers and keeps safe the students who speak languages other than English, but also affects the ability of our native English speakers to engage respectfully with other communities. All students will be more likely to “see the absurdity in the rants of xenophobes and racists”. Moreover, the notion that the multicultural experience afforded by bilingual education should primarily be available to the kids who somehow already have it is inequitable.
3. Spanish is an important language in this region and country but the District should not be limited by it
While Spanish speakers are an important and growing demographic in the District, not all Latinos are English language learners and not all English language learners in the District are Spanish speakers. Among the region’s English language learners there are significant populations of speakers of Amharic, French, Tagalog, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese and increasingly others. Moreover, the District has important and growing population of emerging bilinguals who might speak English well enough but might be at risk of losing a valuable home language. And then there are entire communities for whom a particular language is an integral part of their heritage, despite their limited ability to speak such language.
4. If the District of Columbia wants to be a global hub, it needs all the bilingual education it can get
workforce. In fact, the District of Columbia as a whole has a lot to gain from broadly expanding bilingual education.
5. Schools where half of the students speak the partner language are only one of many successful model
While Two Way Immersion, is desirable and somewhat easier to implement, it should not be held as the golden standard. The District is home to shining examples of successful One Way Immersion programs, where most of the students are native English speakers, and there are entire states that are successfully pulling off State wide implementation of bilingual education through One Way Immersion. In a highly segregated District of Columbia, stating that One Way Immersion is not effective or desirable, is not only incorrect but ignores the geography and demographics of the District and amounts to say that there should be no bilingual education in approximately half of our city.
6. Last but not least, bilingual education is a gap closing strategy
We believe all students benefit from the multiple advantages of bilingual education and that “there is much to be gained from coming together with a unified voice in support of bilingual and immersion education.” Pitting one population against another on the basis of language spoken at home is not only a slippery slope in these tense racial times but is not backed by research. Instead, the District should be focusing on how to build a bilingual education system where all students have access to the benefits of dual language immersion programs, and where bilingual education is used as a tool to narrow the achievement gap and desegregate our schools. Stay tuned for our policy paper on building a bilingual education system in the District of Columbia.