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Translating language-based schools

Understanding what a language-based school is all about can seem as hard as learning a new language itself. In plain English, here's what you should know.

By David McKay Wilson

There’s Spanish, French, Mandarin, and then there’s the language that parents need to understand to assess that language-based school down the street.

Call it bilingual-ish.

In the past few decades, language-based education has blossomed in communities across the country. Now most major cities have at least a few language-based public or private schools offering one of any number of languages such as Spanish, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, even Haitian Creole. Not only do language-based schools represent diverse cultures, but diverse educational models, targeting very different kinds of students.

This has been a boon for parents eager to raise 21st-century global citizens, but the diversity of language-based programs has also led to a fair amount of, well, linguistic confusion.

Language-enriched schools

Some schools that advertise a special language focus may lie in districts where learning a foreign language in elementary school is not standard. But this special language focus could mean students get as little as 20 minutes of second language instruction per day. Children in these programs, which may be referred to as FLES, or Foreign Language in the Elementary School, are not expected to become fluent in the second language. Still, districts argue these programs promote an appreciation for diversity and other cultures.

The rigor of second language programs varies mightily: some schools treat the second language more as an enrichment class like PE or art — a fun way to get exposure to a second language. Other view the second language as integral to the core curriculum — with expectations that children do regular homework in the language, take tests, and make progress towards fluency.

In districts that have adopted second-language study as part of the curriculum for all elementary, middle, and high schools, schools may not identify themselves as language-based schools. Thus, you might find a STEM school that has more intensive language instruction than a language-themed school in a nearby district that doesn’t even offer second language opportunities to all its students.

Bilingualism for English-Language Learners

Bilingual schools are hardly new. For centuries, bilingual schools have been created in immigrant neighborhoods throughout the country. Today, the U.S. Department of Education characterizes the “bilingual education program” as "an educational program for limited English proficient students" that may include English-proficient students if the program aims to get all students proficient in both English and a second language.

The most common bilingual education program is Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE). Also called early-exit bilingual education, TBE students study other academic subjects — such as math or science — in their native language while over the course of about three years, they learn to speak and read in English. As the name suggests, the purpose of this program is to gradually facilitate an English-Language Learner (ELL)’s transition to a completely English taught curriculum.

Structured English Immersion (SEI) is another program that aims to prepare an ELL student for an English-only classroom. SEI places a greater emphasis on English instruction and teachers of such programs teach other subjects in English.

A less common form of bilingual education is Maintenance Bilingual Education (MBE), which doesn’t simply teach in the native language as a temporary bridge to English fluency, but to achieve proficiency in both languages. The goals of Maintenance Bilingualism, or late-exit bilingual education, are to preserve children’s long-term bilingual and bicultural identity. Whatever the case, these programs are not designed for native English speakers.


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