However, it’s possible to clear up some of the imprecision and misinformation surrounding bilingual education and articulate some of the benefits and drawbacks. From that point, the ultimate decision on whether bilingual education is a net positive or negative comes down to certain value judgments and assessments that each educator will have to make for themselves.
Defining Bilingual Education
It seems as though we shouldn’t have to spend much time defining bilingual education – After all, the concept of teaching students in two languages is fairly simple. Going beyond the basic definition and discussing specific implementations of bilingual education is a bit more complicated, though.
First of all, bilingual education can be divided into a series of categories into which it generally falls. Within these groupings are a number of hybrid approaches, but these categorizations give us a decent framework with which to discuss bilingual education.
Transitional vs. Two-Way
When most people in the United States think of bilingual education, they probably first think about transitional bilingual education. Transitional bilingual education is targeted toward immigrant populations with the aim of gradually bringing immigrant students up to speed in English while imparting a standard education in the process.
Transitional bilingual education in the US is almost exclusively Spanish/English aimed at helping Latin American immigrant children learn English with minimum disruption to their education.
Two-way bilingual education is less talked-about, but is an alternative model to bilingual with its own merits and drawbacks. A two-way bilingual education program is targeted not just at immigrant populations, but instead generally take a half and half mix of native English speaking and non-English speaking students.
A two-way bilingual education program has the goal of not only imparting a second language onto all its students, but also in attempting to unify and integrate a heterogeneous student population and facilitate a sharing of cultures.
In the United States, transitional bilingual education programs are far, far more common.
Full Time vs. Supplemental
Another important distinction to make when discussing bilingual education is the difference between full time programs that take place during proper school hours on a daily basis and part time or supplemental programs that take place after school or only on certain days of the week.
Full time bilingual education programs sometimes operate as a 50/50 model where half of the instruction is in one language while the other half is geared toward instruction on the second language being taught to students. Other times, a full time program will start out with the majority of instruction in the native language and over time will build in more and more instruction in the second language.
Part time programs generally tend to teach the unfamiliar language during the after-school or intermittent periods, with the majority of instruction being in the standard language. As a result, part time bilingual education programs are less disruptive in terms of their sequencing into traditional schooling structures.
Pros and Cons of Bilingual Education
Like we discussed earlier, there’s not going to be a definitive answer as to whether schools should adopt bilingual education. In fact, a one-size-fits-all approach is likely to be a resounding failure. Even accepting certain judgments and premises, there will be situations where bilingual education is more or less well suited.
What we can do is take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages to adopting bilingual education in order to frame the decision.
PRO: Bilingual Education Helps Immigrant Children Learn English Without Sacrificing their Education as a Whole
Hardliners on the topic of bilingual education say that immigrant children should be able to learn English in the course or standard instruction while maintaining pace in all subjects. However, ‘should’ is a subjective value judgment more so than anything backed by data.
Research shows that the dropout rate for Hispanic students has been steadily falling since the advent of bilingual education programs several decades back. It’s possible to argue as to exactly the impact that bilingual education programs have on that statistic, but it’s at least suggestive of the fact that these programs have helped students keep up with their schoolwork and progress their educations.
PRO: The Changing Jobs Landscape Rewards Multilingual Workers
Advocates of bilingual education often argue that all children would benefit from a bilingual education, not just immigrant children. And there’s certainly evidence to suggest that there are strong benefits to knowing more than one language.
It starts with the fact that children are significantly better equipped to learn a second language than adults. If the goal is to produce multilingual people, it’s best to start early.
Globalization and the internet continue to shrink our world and stretch job markets across countries and even continents. In this type of landscape, the ability to speak multiple languages could end up being one of the most valuable skills to possess.
And people who have learned a second language are more easily able to pick up a third or fourth language than those who only know one. If the future strongly incentives knowing multiple languages, the best way to produce citizens who fit that criterion is to implement bilingual education from a young age.
CON: Bilingual Education is More Costly Than Traditional
This is probably the most significant con not bound to any particular ideology. Even those who otherwise strongly advocate for bilingual education must concede that it’s simply more expensive than not offering bilingual education.
Like with any other sector, in education there’s only so much money to go around. Short of increasing taxes or taking money for education from some other area of government expenditure, increasing bilingual education means decreasing funding for some other aspect of education.
This is where priorities start to come into play. There will always be people who dislike the idea of bilingual education targeted at immigrant children because these are dollars going exclusively to helping a subsection of the overall student population. In a zero-sum game sense, these are dollars taken from non-immigrant children.
The argument along those lines grows more complex when considering overall public welfare and the potential benefits to society as a whole from good educational outcomes for all students. But boiled down to simplest form, many objections to bilingual education come down to money and how we choose to allocate it.
CON: Bilingual Education Hampers Assimilation of Immigrant Children
This particular con is touchy from a political or cultural standpoint. Ideology plays a large role in whether you accept or reject this particular argument against bilingual education.
The interesting thing with regard to whether bilingual education delays or disrupts assimilation is that the data is rather cloudy. In other words, you can find studies or data to support your position on either side of the issue. There are studies which suggest that immigrant children in bilingual education programs score as well or better on English tests than those not enrolled in such programs. And there are also studies showing that more graduates of bilingual education programs continue to speak their native language than those not enrolled.
Proponents of this argument against bilingual education tend to believe that the burden of assimilation is on immigrant students. This often pairs with a belief that it’s dangerous or undesirable of an immigrant population to retain a culture distinct from an ‘American’ one. They argue that offering bilingual education programs creates a larger group of people who don’t quickly assimilate into the dominant culture.