Benefits of Bilingual Education: Why Educators Should Teach in Multiple Languages

A teacher calls on students in a bilingual high school classroom.

According to sociologists, the demographic trends of California, the most populous state with the world’s fifth biggest economy, and the way California addresses them point the way forward for the rest of the country. After voting to repeal a two-decade ban on dual-language classrooms, California leads the nation in embracing the benefits of bilingual education.

California’s superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, believes dual-language learning is critical for the 21st-century economy. Bilingual education narrows achievement gaps for English language learners (ELLs) and prepares all students to be global citizens by deepening their perspectives with diverse, culturally relevant curricula.

What Does a Bilingual Classroom Look Like?

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to bilingual education, and dual-language classrooms can vary based on the subject, grade, students, teacher, and language. Of the over 220 languages spoken in California, Spanish, spoken by one-third of residents, is the most common. But many districts, such as the Fresno Unified School District, where students speak over 50 languages, are implementing diverse dual-language programs.

Three Examples of a Bilingual Classroom

The Fresno Unified School District now offers the second Hmong dual-language program in California. Students in the Hmong program come from Southeast Asian and English language backgrounds, and instruction time is split evenly between Hmong and English. By the end of sixth grade, students in the program should be fully bilingual and biliterate.

At Salt Creek, an elementary school in California’s Chula Vista Elementary School District, most students come from Spanish-speaking households. Kindergarteners in Chula Vista begin learning with 90 percent Spanish and 10 percent English instruction. By sixth grade, the language split is 50-50.

In Boston, high school students at the Margarita Muñiz Academy are typically ELL Spanish-dominant speakers or FEP English-dominant speakers. Some courses in the school, such as biology and math, are taught in Spanish and students respond in English. Other courses, such as English literature and Spanish literature, are conducted in monolingual formats.

Through varying formats, all students get a chance to shine. Even more important, students get the chance to help each other. For example, Spanish-dominant students can help English-dominant students with algebra. Then, in an English literature class, the dynamic switches.

Active Learning in Bilingual Classrooms

According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), language acquisition requires students to take an active role in their own education. Peer teaching encourages this. Dan Abramoski, assistant headmaster at Muñiz, says one benefit of bilingual education is that it supports compassion and camaraderie between students and faculty.

Dr. Pedro Nava, associate professor of education at Mills College, believes bilingual classrooms emphasize empathy, cultural ways of being, and diverse worldviews. Dual-language teachers act as teachers, participants, facilitators, and spectators.

For example, in a bilingual classroom, rather than taking a day to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, students can make meaningful connections between culture and education by exploring their own families’ histories of migration or discussing different musical traditions and tastes.

The Benefits of Bilingual Education on Student Outcomes

For all students, bilingual learning can mean higher cognitive function, better grades, increased language proficiency, and higher graduation rates and college enrollment. Acquiring a language is an active skill, and students benefit from active classroom participation.

Language-marginalized students stand to benefit the most from dual-language initiatives. Insights from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, Medicines demonstrate that bilingual classrooms promote equity in education and help narrow the achievement gap between native English speakers and English learners.

Closing the Achievement Gap for ELL Students

In 2015, the national graduation rate was 82 percent, yet among ELLs that rate fell to 63 percent. While it may be too soon to fully measure the success of California’s new bilingual classrooms, results from schools that implemented bilingual classrooms prior to 2016 suggest the power of bilingual classrooms to redress educational inequities.

Margarita Muñiz Academy and the Chula Vista Elementary School District have seen student achievement gaps shrink. For example, 75 percent of Muñiz’s inaugural ELL students graduated in 2016, compared to just 61 percent of ELL students who graduated across the district. In just one year at Chula Vista, the number of ELL students meeting or exceeding state standards in English climbed from 42 percent to 51 percent.

Increasing School Involvement for Non-English Speaking Parents

During the 2019-2020 school year, California public schools served 6.1 million students. Of those, 1.1 million were ELLs, while 1.4 million were FEP. Nearly half (40 percent) of California students come from families where English is not spoken at home.

Dr. Nava says bilingual classrooms help students strengthen and enhance the home language they bring to the classroom. When this happens, ELL and fluent-English-proficient (FEP) students can become language brokers for their families. By doing this, students connect their families and home life to the classroom, which increases learning outcomes.

The National PTA finds parental involvement is the biggest predictor of academic achievement: teachers who have high levels of parent involvement see more motivated students. Dr. Nava says for students whose parents do not speak English and may have inflexible work schedules, students translating for their parents can become a meaningful form of parent involvement.

Family engagement, Dr. Nava says, gives a more holistic view than testing and graduation rates of the impact of bilingual learning. To measure family engagement, Dr. Nava suggests teachers use portfolio assessments. Throughout the year, students can share stories—either orally or in writing—about translating.

Emma Sanchez, director of language acquisition and support at the Chula Vista Elementary School District, credits community involvement with closing the achievement gap.

Her students are part of a seven-year commitment, something parents and families support. Each year is another leg of the journey where students become increasingly proficient in two languages.

How California Implements the Benefits of Bilingual Education

To implement bilingual classrooms across California, Tom Torlakson recently launched Global California 2030. California 2030 has four main strategies to support bilingual classrooms.

  1. More than double the number of bilingual teachers over the next decade
  2. By 2030, have half of all K-12 students participating in dual-language programs
  3. Add 800 immersion programs across the state
  4. By 2040, triple the current number of students receiving the State Seal of Biliteracy, nationally recognized for college admissions and career opportunities

Dr. Nava predicts other states will join California’s bilingual classroom push. A case in point: one year after California repealed its ban on bilingual education, Massachusetts passed the LOOK Act, which stands for Language Opportunity for Our Kids.

How Educational Leaders Influence Bilingual Education

Educational leaders like Dr. Sanchez implement policies for bilingual education. Bilingual classrooms require consistency. As Dr. Sanchez says, education at Chula Vista is a journey, each year scaffolded to support the next level of learning.

At Mills College, Dr. Nava and his colleagues prepare future education leaders with self-reflective, social justice-focused leadership modes that will make the benefits of bilingual education a reality for students in California and across the country.

In his work, Dr. Nava has found the greatest success in schools is often driven by teachers and leaders from the community. For leaders to effect change, it helps to become familiar with families and the challenges students face.

Mills College offers an online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership. The online program offers flexibility for teachers who are not relocating but wish to study ethical, thoughtful leadership models that focus on implementing meaningful change, such as bilingual education.

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