Mark Twain Middle School, will soon be an exclusively dual language school. Credit: Courtesy / Mary Field

San Antonio ISD’s plan to convert Mark Twain Middle School to a fully dual-language program, starting with pre-K through second grade for the 2017-2018 school year signals a new direction. The district will have more than 20 dual-language schools in the future. At this juncture, the community should be asking what dual-language education is and what it has to offer.

Dual-language education, sometimes referred to as immersion, has two goals: acquisition of the target language and content learning. Many people believe that children pick up languages more easily than adults, and by extension, regularly exposing a child to a second language will produce a flawless bilingual speaker. This ability is likely overblown and misunderstood. Infants have the ability to distinguish the full range of sounds produced by any type of human speech. By the age of 1, babies know the phonemes (sounds) of their native language, and this universal capacity to distinguish sounds seems to fade.

According to one study carried out in San Antonio with students in grades 1,3, and 5 who were enrolled in a Spanish immersion program, early exposure does not guarantee a native-like accent in the target language. Using a spectrogram to analyze participants’ Spanish vowel sounds acoustically, researchers found that in most cases participants’ vowel sounds differed from those of native speakers’. Teachers often neglect to or believe they don’t need to teach pronunciation in dual-language programs.

Dual-language education does not always graduate students who are fluent in the target language, but it is correlated with other forms of academic achievement. One study of a Mandarin immersion program in California , like results in similar studies, showed students consistently did as well or better than their non-dual peers on standardized tests in all subjects. The study also found that students graduated from 5th grade with an intermediate level of spoken Mandarin Chinese. Graduating from an immersion program with this level of proficiency is certainly a positive accomplishment, but the typical child completing this program could hardly be called an English-Mandarin bilingual.

The erroneous belief that all children will be completely fluent in the target language after five to six years of immersion leads to misguided policies. Schools with immersion programs are often reluctant to accept children into the program in later grades, and many ask parents to sign an agreement stating they will not withdraw their children from the program prematurely. This is done to prevent attrition of students whose spaces cannot be filled with transfers.

Contrary to the popular belief in the preternatural ability of children to pick up a language, research suggests that children who start an immersion program in grade 7 or 8 have performed as well or better as children who started in kindergarten or grade 1. In fact, older students are capable of learning more than younger ones over the same period of time. It is true that a critical period for first language acquisition has been well-documented – studies of so-called wolf children who never develop the ability to speak a first language, for instance. The same result, however, has not been replicated in studies of second language acquisition. The practice of pulling up the drawbridge after children have started a dual-language program in kindergarten or first grade is based in weak research and perhaps unfairly denies children the opportunity to participate in a dual program in later years.

Dual-language programs might also be guilty of entrenching rather than solving the problems of inequality in American education. As result of 2007 state legislation that allowed for increased funding of dual-language programs, Utah, a state with less than 1% of the U.S. population, is home to 10% of American dual-language programs. This has made the state a leader in dual-language education, and educators from around the country have visited Utah schools. Recently, researchers from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University have looked at these programs and the state-wide policies and found that they tend to serve communities that are wealthier and whiter than average.

Their study, “The Gentrification of Dual-Language Education,” found such programs do little for heritage speakers of languages other than English. There is no acknowledgment in Utah’s legislation that some children arrive on the first day of school already bilingual. While it is often the goal of dual-language programs to have students with different home languages learning side by side, teachers in Utah are not required to have an ESL endorsement to teach in one of these programs. In Utah at least, teaching a second language to native English speakers takes priority over teaching all children to be bilingual.

Despite the fact that many dual-language programs underdeliver in the three B’s– bilingualism, biculturalism, and biliteracy – the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are well-established. Bilingualism has a positive impact on executive control, which includes the brain functions of attentional control, inhibitory control, memory, reasoning, problem-solving, and planning. Canadian studies on children in French immersion have shown that children in these programs perform similarly to children who were born bilingual in tests of executive control after three years of immersion.

Dual-language programs, like the one proposed for Mark Twain, are not a silver bullet for education. Dual-language programs have not been shown to uniformly produce perfectly bilingual children who can solve American inequality. According to research, however, they do tend to graduate children who do well in general standardized tests, have intermediate or better levels of a second language, and possess greater cognitive abilities than children who are bilingual from birth seem to have. These outcomes are less exciting than those that dual-language cheerleaders may promise, but they are promising enough to make these ventures worthwhile for the students.

To make dual-language programs successful, teachers will need to be capable of both teaching an elementary curriculum and also teaching a language. Just as a bilingual person is not two monolingual people in one, a bilingual teacher is not necessarily both a good language teacher and effective elementary classroom teacher. Parents also need to have reasonable expectations for their children’s language capabilities as they exit these programs. Similarly, folk beliefs about how children acquire a second language should not guide decisions for the programs. Lastly, administrators and district leaders have a responsibility to make sure that dual-language programs do not perpetuate existing inequalities in the education system.

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Mary Field

Mary Field is head of academics at the International School of San Antonio. She has been teaching Chinese in Texas since 2015.