There’s an old adage that serves education well: Don’t limit a child’s education to the one you grew up with, for they are born in a different time. Today, parents commonly translate this sentiment into, “We want our children’s education to prepare them for a globally competitive world and workforce.” Yet, at the same time, support for dual language education is lukewarm, at best. Simply put, you can’t “be globally prepared” while “speaking only one language.” Multilingual candidates will always have the advantage.
Let’s look at some important estimates about the world of today and tomorrow:
• The majority of the world speaks more than one language, compared with about 20 percent of people in the United States.
• Most babies born in the United States today are minorities, with the largest sub-group being Hispanic.
• By the time many of the students in schools today become adults, minorities will account for more than half of the population of the United States.
These demographic shifts are seismic when we think about the very diverse and multilingual world our children will grow up in. Thirty years from now, being white and speaking only English will mean that you are a minority who lacks a skill most people in the rest of the world already have.
The education system of our past is insufficient to prepare our children for their future world.
In spite of these cultural sands shifting right beneath our feet, our country still struggles with embracing a multilingual education. And, we struggle with it right here in Eagle County.
WHAT DUAL LANGUAGE EDUCATION ISN’T
Dual language education is not subverting one language and culture in favor of another. It is the fastest, most effective way to help Spanish-speakers develop mastery of English. It’s also the most effective way for English-speakers to develop higher-order thinking skills, while developing proficiency in Spanish.
Note two important distinctions: “mastery” of English; “proficiency” in Spanish. We need all students to have mastery of English as their primary language. In a fully integrated dual language system, it’s likely that students would have mastery of both languages by graduation, but conversational proficiency in Spanish is the goal.
Dual language does not “dumb down” the curriculum. A common misperception is that if we teach in more than one language, then something else must be “taken out” of the curriculum, or that the curriculum is re-calibrated lower to kids who are struggling to learn English.
The evidence proves both of these misperceptions to be wrong.
Consider Singapore, a country slightly larger than the state of Colorado in terms of population, with 5.3 million people. Singapore is a diverse country, with a Chinese ethnic majority, but also large numbers of Malaysians and Indians. Singapore has four official languages and all students have to learn multiple languages in school. Singaporean students may get science in English, math in Tamil and reading in Mandarin.
Closer to home we can look at the Canadian province of Ontario and its largest city, Toronto. Astonishingly, half of the residents of Toronto are immigrants from a dizzying array of other countries. Toronto and Denver are about the same size, at 2.6 million people. A stunning number of languages and dialects are spoken by the residents of Toronto and multilingual education has been a foundational part of Ontario’s education system since the late 1960s.
Singapore and Ontario consistently rank among the best performing education systems in the world.
Multilingualism doesn’t “dumb down” learning; it amps it up.
WHAT DUAL LANGUAGE IS
Besides evidence from case studies like Singapore and Ontario, other education research shows that multilingual students actually outperform monolingual peers on all academic measures. And, research from the other end of the life cycle shows that the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s are delayed by some five years in individuals who are multilingual.
Something very fascinating and mysterious happens within the architecture of the brain when a person learns a second or third language. Whatever that magic is, it elevates all learning.
As if this were not enough, being multilingual is an enormous competitive advantage for job seekers, especially given the increasingly global nature of our economy.
Finally, our teachers tell me that instances of racism dramatically fall, and examples of mutual respect rise, among students who are educated together and learn each other’s languages. These students are better adjusted and prepared for their diverse and multilingual future.
THE WAY FORWARD
As the most effective way for our Spanish speakers to master English, and the most effective way to improve general achievement across the board for all students, dual language and inclusive education are foundational parts of our long-term strategy.
Upvalley, Avon and Edwards elementary schools already have fully developed dual language programs in English and Spanish. We are working to articulate these up into middle school, and to also offer other languages in our high schools.
Downvalley, Eagle Valley Elementary is implementing dual language education to complement its International Baccalaureate program. Gypsum Elementary is working to build more multilingual educational programs, too.
As we consider the expansion of multilingual options, we understand that implementing them with quality will take time, patience and the support of our community.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.