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Translating language-based schools

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By David McKay Wilson

The rise of dual-language schools

Have you heard about an English-speaking kid who became fluent in a second language just by attending a certain school? Most likely, he or she attended a dual-language program, in which students are taught in two languages. First established in the 1960s, there are now more than 2,000 dual-language schools across the U.S., including 300 in New York State. Several types of programs fall under the dual-language umbrella: two-way immersion, foreign language immersion, heritage language immersion, and maintenance bilingual programs (even though these are not for native English speakers).

A large subset of these programs is two-way immersion programs, which are designed to foster bilingualism and biliteracy in both English-speaking children as well as non-English speakers. In these programs, teachers speak a portion of the day in one language and another part of the day in the other. With the 90/10 model of two-way immersion, for instance, 90 percent of instruction is in the second language and 10 percent is in English. Two-way programs require balanced student populations, meaning about one-half of the students are fluent in the second language, with the other half being native English speakers.

Foreign language or one-way immersion schools are designed to teach English-speaking children to speak, read, and write in a second language. In the U.S., if a public school is say, a French or Italian immersion school, chances are it’s one-way immersion, because there isn’t a big enough French or Italian population to make it dual-immersion.

In such schools, teachers switch between languages in a variety of ways depending on the program. For instance, some schools split each day — one language in the morning and one language in the afternoon — while others spend weeks in one language and then switch to another. So if you are looking at an immersion program, ask about the details and think about whether this model will work well for your child.

Finally, heritage immersion programs allow English-speaking students to develop literacy and maintain fluency in the language of their parents or grandparents.

Want your child to learn second language, but no schools in sight? Community/Saturday schools run by minority communities (Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, Greek) offer classes on the weekends to teach children proficiency in their family language.

Again, while other dual-language options are available, two-way immersion schools are gaining in popularity and have become one of the most popular models of dual-immersion programs.

What you might find in a two-way immersion school

  • Strict separation of languages: Classroom instruction — beginning in PreK or kindergarten — alternates between English and the foreign language (often Spanish). The instruction can be in English one day and Spanish the next. Other schools switch during the middle of the school day or in two-week language blocks. Yet others alternate the language by subject matter. But only one language is used during each period of instruction.
  • Good relations between English-dominant speakers and those learning English: Dual-language schools break down the cultural — and language — barriers between these two groups. Children feel at ease with each other because they can communicate in each other’s languages. Expect stronger parental involvement from the parents of both groups.
  • Biliterate children: Students can become biliterate — able to speak, read, and write in both languages. The brain is so open to language in the elementary school years, and learning two languages together encourages higher-order thinking to take hold at an earlier age.
  • Strong community support: Bilingual programs came under attack in the 1990s for failing to adequately teach English to immigrant children. Dual-language programs, however, were exempted from laws banning bilingual education in states like Massachusetts. In California, parents sign waivers allowing their children to participate in such programs. These schools found strong political support because they provide benefits for both English-speaking students and English language learners.


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