Dual-language education: Troubled and in demand

Photo by Lisa Krantz

Uno, dos, tres... A de abeja, B de berenjena, y C de calendario. One, two, three… (A for bee, B for eggplant, and C for calendar). 

Dual-language classrooms follow a model similar to this; students spend half of their day with a teacher who speaks to them (and enforces that they speak) only in English, and the other half is spent with a second teacher who does the same, but in Spanish. Educational material is split between the classrooms, and students get the best of both worlds. 

María sits in the corner, enunciating “M-m-m-o-o-n-d-a-i,” failing fabulously in pronouncing “Monday.” María spoke only Spanish as she entered kindergarten, but she is making progress. In a typical classroom, María would be the other, an exception among students who can already speak some English. Not in Mrs. Salinas’ dual-language classroom, however; here, María is an active learner in a classroom mixed with people who are skilled in English, and others who are gifted with the Spanish language. Here, she can feel like another normal child and also one who can help others. As much as the English-speakers are helping María learn English, she is helping them learn Spanish. In this setting, where students like María are valued and not seen as burdens, a symbiotic relationship arises between two socio-cultural-linguistic worlds. 

Until I graduated last year, this was much like my own journey through the public education system in Pasadena. María’s story should end just like mine, where few people ever realize that English was not the native tongue. 

But this is no longer the norm for the dual-language program. In the years since I enrolled in 2004, it has exploded in popularity, the advantages of speaking two languages have become increasingly clear and the status that the dual-language program holds has evolved. Today, it is seen as novel, in-demand, and innovative; a fresh and coveted program that increasingly caters to the desires of the more privileged families in our country. This alarming pattern sheds light on the gentrification and exploitation of programs created for underserved populations; moreover, this is where I take issue with what dual-language has become, for the ramifications of these changes will be most strongly felt by those who need the program most — non-native English speakers like María and I. Though ideally the dual-language program would serve all interested student populations, the education sector is not immune to the classic economics problem of supply and demand. If dual-language educators follow what is best for them, they leave behind the students who need them most — those who cannot speak English. 

Presently, in the realm of public education, dual-language programs fall under the umbrella of English Learner (EL) Education. In Texas, there are two small fountains of money for dual-language programs. The federal money school districts receive for this specialized educational category is through Federal Title III State Formula Grants, which are broadly “designed to improve the education of ELs.” The recently passed House Bill 3 will give “another 5% (in extra funding) for English learners who are (specifically) in dual language programs,” but it will not offset the many challenges borne by educators who elect to take on dual-language classrooms. What needs to be done, instead, is shift the state’s focus in EL education to dual-language education, the most effective and culturally aware subset of bilingual education. 

Although there is a dire need for greater funding across the board in public education, this is particularly true for the dual-language program, because educators who commit to it are not being properly compensated for their services. In Texas, a bilingual educator teaching a class of English Learners qualifies for a bilingual stipend. Bilingual dual-language teachers usually receive this bilingual stipend, but any bilingual-certified educator with EL students may receive this bonus. Dual-language educators, though, do more than bilingual educators, empowering students with skills and capabilities in a foreign language that they will carry for the rest of their lives, while simultaneously ensuring that students’ native languages are not lost. Furthermore, the English-speaking teacher in a dual language classroom does not receive the bilingual stipend, despite having to go through the arduous task of teaching students who still cannot fully understand them. These educators continue to teach ELs with no monetary benefit attached. As a result, it is a trivial choice for some of our most talented teachers to leave behind the underserved students who need them and dual-language the most, for schools that seem to better appreciate them. This is not the promise we make to students through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). 

As a firm believer in the notion that awareness brings change, I ask that you consider spreading the word about dual language, using the hashtag #2languages2cultures1world. While dual-language programs present a magnificent array of benefits for our children, the development of them must be closely watched, or we risk them becoming yet another injustice to marginalized populations.

Mariano Andrés García

Student, Columbia University