This blog on Texas education contains posts on accountability, testing, college readiness, dropouts, bilingual education, immigration, school finance, race, class, and gender issues with additional focus at the national level.
Part of our ongoing series exploring how the U.S. can educate the nearly 5 million students who are learning English.
brains, brains. One thing we've learned at NPR Ed is that people are
fascinated by brain research. And yet it can be hard to point to places
where our education system is really making use of the latest
But there is one happy nexus where
research is meeting practice: bilingual education. "In the last 20 years
or so, there's been a virtual explosion of research on bilingualism,"
says Judith Kroll, a professor at the University of California,
Again and again, researchers have found,
"bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime," in
the words of Gigi Luk, an associate professor at Harvard's Graduate
School of Education.
At the same time, one of the hottest
trends in public schooling is what's often called dual-language or
two-way immersion programs.
Traditional programs for English-language learners, or ELLs, focus
on assimilating students into English as quickly as possible.
Dual-language classrooms, by contrast, provide instruction across
subjects to both English natives and English learners, in both English
and in a target language.
The goal is functional bilingualism and biliteracy for all students by middle school.
York City, North Carolina, Delaware, Utah, Oregon and Washington state
are among the places expanding dual-language classrooms.
trend flies in the face of some of the culture wars of two decades ago,
when advocates insisted on "English first" education. Most famously,
California passed Proposition 227 in 1998. It was intended to sharply reduce the amount of time that English-language learners spent in bilingual settings. Proposition 58,
passed by California voters on Nov. 8, largely reversed that decision,
paving the way for a huge expansion of bilingual education in the state
that has the largest population of English-language learners.
Some of the insistence on English-first was founded in research
produced decades ago, in which bilingual students underperformed
monolingual English speakers and had lower IQ scores.
Today's scholars, like Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, now say that research was "deeply flawed."
research looked at socially disadvantaged groups," agrees Antonella
Sorace at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. "This has been
completely contradicted by recent research" that compares more similar
groups to each other.
So what does recent research say about
the potential benefits of bilingual education? NPR Ed called up seven
researchers in three countries — Sorace, Bialystok, Luk, Kroll, Jennifer
Steele, and the team of Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier — to find
It turns out that, in many ways, the real trick to speaking two languages consists in managing not to speak one of those languages at a given moment — which is fundamentally a feat of paying attention.
Saying "Goodbye" to mom and then "Guten tag" to your teacher, or managing to ask for a crayola roja
instead of a red crayon, requires skills called "inhibition" and "task
switching." These skills are subsets of an ability called executive
People who speak two languages often outperform
monolinguals on general measures of executive function. "[Bilinguals]
can pay focused attention without being distracted and also improve in
the ability to switch from one task to another," says Sorace.
these same advantages accrue to a child who begins learning a second
language in kindergarten instead of as a baby? We don't yet know.
Patterns of language learning and language use are complex. But Gigi Luk
at Harvard cites at least one brain-imaging study on adolescents that
shows similar changes in brain structure when compared with
those who are bilingual from birth, even when they didn't begin
practicing a second language in earnest before late childhood. Empathy
children being raised bilingual have to follow social cues to figure
out which language to use with which person and in what setting. As a
result, says Sorace, bilingual children as young as age 3 have demonstrated a head start on tests of perspective-taking and theory of mind — both of which are fundamental social and emotional skills. Reading (English)
10 percent of students in the Portland, Ore., public schools are
assigned by lottery to dual-language classrooms that offer instruction
in Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin, alongside English.
Jennifer Steele at American University conducted a four-year, randomized trial
and found that these dual-language students outperformed their peers in
English-reading skills by a full school year's worth of learning by the
end of middle school.
Such a large effect in a study this size
is unusual, and Steele is currently conducting a flurry of follow-up
studies to tease out the causality: Is this about a special program that
attracted families who were more engaged? Or about the dual-language
"If it's just about moving the kids
around," Steele says, "that's not as exciting as if it's a way of
teaching that makes you smarter."
Steele suspects the latter. Because the effects are found in
reading, not in math or science where there were few differences, she
suggests that learning two languages makes students more aware of how
language works in general, aka "metalinguistic awareness."
research of Gigi Luk at Harvard offers a slightly different explanation.
She has recently done a small study looking at a group of 100
fourth-graders in Massachusetts who had similar reading scores on a
standard test, but very different language experiences.
were foreign-language dominant and others were English natives. Here's
what's interesting. The students who were dominant in a foreign language
weren't yet comfortably bilingual; they were just starting to learn
English. Therefore, by definition, they had much weaker English
vocabularies than the native speakers.
Yet they were just as good at decoding a text.
is very surprising," Luk says. "You would expect the reading
comprehension performance to mirror vocabulary — it's a cornerstone of
How did the foreign-language dominant speakers
manage this feat? Well, Luk found, they also scored higher on tests of
executive functioning. So, even though they didn't have huge mental
dictionaries to draw on, they may have been great puzzle-solvers, taking
into account higher-level concepts such as whether a single sentence
made sense within an overall story line.
They got to the same results as the monolinguals, by a different path. School performance and engagement.
Thomas and Virginia Collier, a husband and wife team of professors
emeritus at George Mason University in Virginia, have spent the past 30
years collecting evidence on the benefits of bilingual education.
came to our research with skepticism, thinking students ought to get
instruction all day in English," says Virginia Collier. "Eight million
student records later, we're convinced," Wayne Thomas chimes in.
studies covering six states and 37 districts, they have found that,
compared with students in English-only classrooms or in one-way
immersion, dual-language students have somewhat higher test scores and
also seem to be happier in school. Attendance is better, behavioral
problems fewer, parent involvement higher. Diversity and integration.
public school classrooms as a whole are becoming more segregated by
race and class. Dual-language programs can be an exception. Because they
are composed of native English speakers deliberately placed together
with recent immigrants, they tend to be more ethnically and
socioeconomically balanced. And there is some evidence that this helps
kids of all backgrounds gain comfort with diversity and different
Several of the researchers I talked with also pointed
out that, in bilingual education, non-English-dominant students and
their families tend to feel that their home language is heard and
valued, compared with a classroom where the home language is left at the
door in favor of English.
This can improve students' sense of
belonging and increase parent involvement in their children's education,
including behaviors like reading to children.
fear their language is an obstacle, a problem, and if they abandon it
their child will integrate better," says Antonella Sorace of the
University of Edinburgh. "We tell them they're not doing their child a
favor by giving up their language." Protection against cognitive decline and dementia.
this away as a very, very long-range payoff. Researchers have found
that actively using two languages seems to have a protective effect
against age-related dementia — perhaps relating to the changes in brain
structure we talked about earlier.
Specifically, among patients
with Alzheimer's in a Canadian study, a group of bilingual adults
performed on par with a group of monolingual adults in terms of
cognitive tests and daily functioning. But when researchers looked at
the two groups' brains, they found evidence of brain atrophy that was
five to seven years more advanced in the bilingual group. In other
words, the adults who spoke two languages were carrying on longer at a
higher level despite greater degrees of damage. The coda, and a caution
theme that was striking in speaking to all these researchers was just
how strongly they advocated for dual-language classrooms.
Thomas and Collier have advised many school systems on how to expand their dual-language programs, and Sorace runs "Bilingualism Matters," an international network of researchers who promote bilingual education projects.
type of advocacy among scientists is unusual; even more so because the
"bilingual advantage hypothesis" is being challenged once again. A
review of studies published last year found that cognitive advantages failed to appear in 83 percent of published studies, though in a separate meta-analysis, the sum of effects was still significantly positive.
potential explanation offered by the researchers I spoke with is that
advantages that are measurable in the very young and very old tend to
fade when testing young adults at the peak of their cognitive powers.
they countered that no negative effects of bilingual education have
been found. So, they argue that even if the advantages are small, they
are still worth it.
Not to mention one obvious, outstanding
fact underlined by many of these researchers: "Bilingual children can
speak two languages! That's amazing," says Bialystok.