Is Dual Language Education Fulfilling its Purpose?

We recently published Bilingualism for All? edited by Nelson Flores, Amelia Tseng and Nicholas Subtirelu. In this post the editors explain the current issues surrounding dual language education in the US.

Bilingualism is many things to many people. In US schools, some students’ bilingualism is taken as a sign of achievement and an investment in a cosmopolitan future, while other students’ bilingualism is treated as unbridled potential but is more readily seen as a barrier. For example, in an essay titled “How to dismantle elite bilingualism”, Nelson Flores argues that a variety of policy decisions and other factors coalesce to create “classrooms where elite bilinguals are framed as gifted and racialized bilinguals are framed as in need of remediation”. In particular, white students from affluent backgrounds are often celebrated for studying languages like Spanish in school, while bilingual BIPOC students are framed as having “gaps” in their achievement and language abilities.

Both of these ways of seeing students’ bilingualism have contributed to the current boom of dual language programs being offered in elementary and middle schools in the United States. Dual language programs grew by a factor of 10 between 2001 and 2015. Proponents of dual language immersion paint a picture of a classroom environment where everyone wins: students classified as English language learners strengthen their English, and other students get the opportunity to develop proficiency in an additional language, such as Spanish, all while building a multicultural community. This vision of inclusive and progressive education offered by dual language immersion programs is tantalizing. But is it being fulfilled?

The question of whether dual language education is fulfilling its purpose in serving vulnerable populations to the betterment of all is a critical topic. As an example, the city where we live, Washington, D.C., is on the cutting edge of dual language education, with many historic and more recent public and charter schools following a dual-language model. However, schools tend to be overwhelmingly white, leading the Washington Post to ask in 2018, “Are dual-language programs in urban schools a sign of gentrification?” This article highlights the popularity of elite bilingualism and a neoliberal perspective of “language as resource” where bilingual education is a hot commodity for white, middle-class Americans, whose needs and norms then dominate the schools, while racialized bilingual students remain marginalized within the same schools, and they and other racialized children are not able to access the schools and benefit from the programs.

Our new book, Bilingualism for All?, brings together the most recent research on these topics and more, from scholars who use a range of approaches to address educational equity. Their work takes a raciolinguistic perspective to examine the reproduction of racial inequities in classrooms, at the school and community level, and at the level of policy. They examine topics ranging from peer interactions, teaching, parent relationships, and school and district policies. Languages covered include Spanish, Korean, Hebrew, and English; research sites range from California and Utah to New York City and beyond. The book raises new questions, such as bilingual education and equity for disabled students, and engages directly with issues of racism and privilege. With the help of an outstanding group of scholars, our aim is for the book to put its finger on the question of whether dual language education is currently for the betterment of all, or increasingly for a select population that already enjoys many social privileges. It is our hope that the book will resonate not only with scholars, but with educators who may see these themes in their own schools and classrooms, and with future teachers. We believe in bilingual education as a critical support for educational equity and achievement, and in dual language immersion as a powerful and potentially transformative model. However, in order to achieve its potential, dual language education must confront the same structural inequities that permeate our institutions and are at the forefront of national debate.

Amelia Tseng, American University
tseng@american.edu

Nicholas Subtirelu, Georgetown University
Nicholas.Subtirelu@georgetown.edu

For more information about this book please see our website.

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