Dual-language, ESL programs aren't alike

As the mother of two children enrolled in a dual-language program and as an expert in bilingualism and bilingual education, I can assure you that English as a second language, or ESL, programs, in their goals, structure and implementation, are a far cry from immersion/dual-language programs (Dual immersion sounds a lot like ESL,” Jan. 27).

First, the expectations of each program are different. In ESL programs, no support or value is given to the child’s primary language, and the goal is that the child learns English as quickly as possible (often at the expense of the primary language). In dual language programs, the goal is that all children — both English speakers and learners — become bilingual and bi-literate.

There is plenty of research out there (yes, large-scale studies conducted with many different children and in many different schools) that shows that stripping English-language learners of the opportunity to develop and become literate in their primary language has negative consequences and jeopardizes their ability to fully develop English (especially academic language competence).

I agree that it seems counterintuitive that 25 minutes of English a day will equal the five or six hours of English heard by a regular kindergartner. Research shows that children in immersion programs initially lag behind their peers in English-only programs. This is equally true for native English speakers and learners.

But if you look at how these children are doing in third grade, when their exposure to English goes up to 30% or 40% while their exposure to the target language remains substantial, their scores become very similar to children in English-only programs. If you look at the same children in fifth grade, after intensive bilingual exposure, and after having digested math, history, science, etc. in two languages, these children are scoring higher than their monolingual peers, not only in math and science, but even in English!

Why should it be so? It has been speculated that bilingualism helps the child develop creative thinking — the ability to think and solve problems in ways that are original, flexible and creative. Bilingualism also fosters metalinguistic awareness — knowledge and understanding of one’s own language(s) and its elements (hence higher scores in English). Bilingual education also leads the child to develop a deeper understanding and retention of academic content, because learning such content in two languages requires more attention and cognitive effort than learning it in just one.

It takes time for the positive benefits of bilingualism to appear (it is only proficient bilinguals who show these advantages), so immersion students’ parents need not only be well informed about these program outcomes over time, but they need to be patient, supportive and take a bit of a leap of faith.

In sum, it is possible that children become bilingual and bi-literate in childhood and reach high levels of academic achievement. Think how many bilingual and bi-literate children there are in the world. Do they all reach low levels of academic achievement because of their bilingualism? The answer is no.

Simona Montanari

Lake View Terrace

Editor’s note: Montanari is assistant professor for child and family studies at Cal State Los Angeles.

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