Bilingual, or multilingual education simply refers to any program that teaches in more than one language. Around the world, that can look very different. California’s department of education refers to multilingual education as programs that, “prepare students for linguistic and academic proficiency in English and additional languages.”
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California is so invested in developing a bilingual population that in 2018, the state superintendent developed a plan called Global California 2030 that lays out an expectation that at least 50% of all public school students participate in bilingual programs leading to proficiency in two or more languages. There are many myths about bilingual education and here are seven things you should know about it.

  1. Bilingual education is more American than apple pie. This land we call the United States of America was originally inhabited by Indigenous speakers of hundreds of languages. Conquest and colonization came in waves, and a multilingual educational system was reflective of those waves. From the first wave of immigrants to the East coast shores, schools supporting the maintenance of heritage languages were developed to allow families to connect to their roots. Many of these schools were built in order to both support home language, but also teach one common language for successful interaction in these new lands. While the first American laws allowing bilingual education were passed in 1839, the idea of maintaining heritage languages has a history dating back before the founding of the United States. In the first century of the new country, and in territories, schools flourished with German, Spanish, and French among many other languages. Education policy occurred at local levels, and reflected the communities that came over to the ‘new world’. 
  1. Bilingual Education is a Really Big, Messy Term Bilingual, or multilingual education simply refers to any program that teaches in more than one language. Around the world, that can look very different. California’s department of education refers to multilingual education as programs that, “prepare students for linguistic and academic proficiency in English and additional languages.” That definition has allowed it to serve many purposes, which have historically been the cause of legal challenges, political maneuvering, and misinformation in the media. When you hear someone use the term bilingual education, they could be referring to anything from transitional bilingual programs, with a primary goal of English language development, to maintenance programs like two-way bilingual immersion programs (TWBI), with a focus on full bilingualism and biliteracy, usually by 8th grade. Key in the implication of these terms is that many of these programs focus on the student who speaks a language other than English. This will come up again in the next point. 
  1. Bilingual Education: It May Not Mean What You Think it Means. Because of the catchall nature of the term, bilingual education has multiple meanings and looks very different in different spaces. In the past 60 years, the most common type of bilingual education programs have been transitional programs, where the focus is on the student transitioning to English, with little to no emphasis placed on maintenance of any home languages. Recently, there has been an increase in calls for bilingual education programs that support both English and another language, most commonly Spanish in the United States.  Two-Way Bilingual Immersion (TWBI) refers to programs that enroll an equal number of students who speak English, and a ‘partner language’, although even those models vary. Some offer varying scales of English and the partner language, while others are consistently 50/50. Some programs are strands within a school and others are all of the students within a school. While statistics are not available for that specific type of program, another key term does have data available. Dual Language Immersion (DLI) is the umbrella term for all programs where students learn two languages, regardless of the home language of the students. DLI programs have more than tripled in the past decade. For more information on specific terminology, head over to the Center for Applied Linguistics, they have a great glossary of terms.  
  1. The Current Popular Version of Bilingual Education has its Origin in Resistance. The fight for bilingual and bicultural education in the form of two-way immersion emerged from the civil rights struggle, as well as migration and global cultural issues. From 1960-1962, the largest migration of unaccompanied minors in the history of the Western Hemisphere (Operation Pedro Pan) resulted in over 14,000 Cuban children being evacuated to the United States from a newly established government under Fidel Castro. Both Cubans and Americans at that time believed that the Castro regime would be short-lived, so the education of these Cuban children was viewed with a different lens. Assuming they would return to Cuba to be educated in Spanish again, the goal for these students was not complete English immersion. In 1963, utilizing a Ford Foundation grant, one Miami school developed a program that would support the approximately 50% English speaking children and the 50% Spanish speaking children, and two-way bilingual immersion was born in the United States at Coral Way Elementary. This model grew and now exists in dozens of states with California establishing an initiative that aims to have 50% of students enrolled in programs like Coral Way by 2030. The benefits of this model of bilingual education have been studied time and again and found to have benefits for both the English-only students, as well as the partner language students.
  1. Bilingual Education Does Not Cause Language Delay, and Does Not Exacerbate Disabilities. Pobrecito, he’ll be confused.” Many times, people are told that bilingualism causes delays. Or, they believe that if a child has Autism, or Down Syndrome, more than one language can confuse them or cause greater delay. The good news is that science tells us that is not true. All children, including children with Down Syndrome, Autism, and other disabilities, can thrive in bilingual environments. This confusion in understanding bilingual language development can sometimes come from flaws in logic or measurement. When children are only assessed in one language, people may see a slightly lower vocabulary range. But, that ignores the fact that they have a whole other vocabulary set, and that the combined set may actually be greater than monolingual English speakers. Bilingualism doesn’t cause confusion or delay, and in fact seems to provide cognitive benefits, as well as increased social understanding. In children with disabilities, access to their heritage/home language in immersion programs would be an advantage, as they could build on existing linguistic knowledge. Despite this, parents of children with disabilities are often counseled out of immersion programs. This doesn’t match the research.
  1. When it Comes to Bilingual Education, California Residents Have a Voice, and a Choice. California has a love/hate relationship with bilingual education. Back in 1976, the state legislature passed the Chacon-Moscone Bilingual-Bicultural Act, making bilingual education a right for all students. Unfortunately, in the 1990’s, anti-immigrant sentiment rolled back rights for many people, and in 1998, Proposition 227 banned bilingual education in the state, making it much more difficult to grow and support immersion programs, and effectively closing down bilingual teacher education programs. Fortunately, in 2016, voters had a change of heart and Proposition 58 allowed bilingual education again. Currently, districts can determine the path they want to take with regard to bilingual education. And with the new laws, parents have a major voice. Each district has its own system for determining how and when to open new language focused programs, but parents are a driving force in this process. According to the current policies, if 30 people in a school request an immersion program, the district must conduct an analysis of the feasibility in implementing a language focused program. 

7. Everyone Benefits from Bilingual Education. The results are in. Bilingual education benefits both English only students and students who speak another language only. Multiple studies have shown the benefit of immersion to heritage language speakers. Spanish speaking children who enter into Spanish DLI programs have better outcomes than their peers. One interesting study happened almost by accident. Portland Public Schools had so many students seeking immersion programs that they had to develop a lottery system, which allowed them to conduct a randomized study on outcomes of DLI programs. Their study found that all students showed an increase in reading test scores, and comparable math and science scores. Stanford recently completed a longitudinal study that found that Spanish-speaking students who entered Spanish immersion speaking primarily Spanish were able to reclassify to English Proficient faster than their Spanish speaking peers who enrolled in non-immersion programs, and they had higher GPA and standardized test scores. If you live in a community that wants to explore an immersion program, let the school know. Programs take time and resources, but are possible, especially in communities that have linguistic wealth. The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted public schools, and some schools are having to rethink their programming. Franklin McKinley School District in San Jose  revisited their academic structure, took advantage of the wealth of Vietnamese students in their community, and built a Vietnamese immersion program. They have seen enrollment increase at a time when most districts are seeing a decline in enrollment. Change, growth, and cultural sustainability all in one linguistic package? Yes please!

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Marcella Cardoza McCollum is a bilingual speech-language pathologist, and assistant professor at San José State University. Her research interests focus on access of underrepresented student populations...