Early Childhood Education

Bilingual Education


Bilingual education in the United States has traditionally referred to the education of children whose home language is not English. Typically, the goal of bilingual programs has been to raise the English fluency of the students to a level that will allow them to function in English language classrooms. Once they are judged to be sufficiently fluent in English (usually through a mixture of academic achievement and language fluency testing), the students are transitioned to English-only instruction. Rarely is the goal to promote high levels of proficiency in two languages, but rather to provide sufficient instruction and support that allows the child to exit from the bilingual program as quickly as possible with no ongoing support for the home language. Thus, the term bilingual education is a misnomer in light of the actual goals and program practices in most U.S. educational settings.

Currently, it is estimated that about 20 percent of the school age population in the United States speaks a language other than English at home; between 14 and 16 percent of children speak Spanish as their home language (Reyes and Moll, 2004), and another 4-6 percent speak something other than Spanish. Bilingualism, or nearly equal proficiency in two languages, has been studied and debated for decades in this country. In 1968, the Bilingual Education Act was passed, which required teachers and schools to meet the cultural and linguistic needs of children who did not speak English. This led to the proliferation of bilingual programs in school districts, followed by many studies evaluating the effectiveness of different approaches to bilingual education. Disagreements over the value of bilingualism in the context of U.S. social policies has resulted in an English-only movement that has severely restricted bilingual education programs in some states. With the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, current policies emphasize the rapid acquisition of English without explicit attention to the role of the home language in long-term academic achievement. In fact several states have adopted English-only policies and many more repeatedly submit to voters English-only ballot initiatives that would require English only in all spheres of public life.

Children whose home language is not English are considered English-language learners (ELLs). They are also frequently described as linguistic minority students or more recently as linguistically diverse students. As children acquire a second language, one language may be more dominant because they are using that language more than the other at a particular point in time. Frequently children demonstrate a language imbalance as they progress toward bilingualism. During this time, children may not perform as well as native speakers in either language. This is a normal and most often temporary phase of emergent bilingualism (see Second Language Acquisition in Early Childhood). It is rare for young children to achieve a balanced bilingualism without special assistance, but most can achieve it given sufficient exposure, opportunities, and motivation for use. For this reason, it is important to assess bilingual children on both their first language and English to monitor the progress of their bilingualism.

There are several models for early childhood bilingual education in the United States. Bilingual Education programs are generally expected to divide classroom interaction between English and the child’s first/home language. However, the percentage of time actually devoted to native language versus English varies enormously depending on the language fluency of the teaching staff and the goals of the program. Bilingual programs must have at least one teacher who is fluent in the child’s first language. Examples of bilingual programs include dual-language classes (which include minority-language and English-speaking children), maintenance bilingual education, transitional bilingual education, English submersion with native language and ESL support, and integrated bilingual education. The goals of such programs vary from transitioning into English as quickly as possible, maintaining and supporting home language development while simultaneously supporting English acquisition, or promoting second language development for both English speakers and non-English speakers, that is, dual language programs.

Dual language programs are increasingly found in the United States. There are a variety of terms used to describe these programs: Two-way immersion, two-way bilingual education, developmental bilingual education, and dual language education. Dual language classrooms contain an approximate balance of language minority and native English-speaking children. Both languages are used throughout the curriculum in approximately equal amounts so that all children will become bilingual and eventually biliterate and multicultural. English-language learners are expected to become proficient in their home language as well as English. Native English speakers are expected to develop language and literacy skills in a second language while making normal progress in English.

A second approach to bilingual education is through Primary/Native Language Programs. In these programs all or most interactions are in the child’s first or primary language. In these settings, the teachers must be fluent in the child’s home language. The goals include development and support for the child’s first language with little or no systematic exposure to English during the early phases. The child’s home language is used for the majority of classroom time with the justification being that the concepts, skills, and knowledge will transfer from the first language into English. The home language is promoted to support cognitive and literacy development in a language the child understands, and to preserve cultural identity. One such program—the Carpenteria Preschool Program, a Spanish language preschool in California—has been studied and evaluated to determine the long-term effects of first language instruction during the preschool years on future language and literacy skills. Researchers concluded that first language instruction during the preschool years fostered both native language and English language fluency (Campos and Rosemberg, 1995).

English Immersion is another common approach to bilingual education. Immersion simply means that students learn everything in English. The extreme case of this is described as a “sink or swim” approach to learning English. However, teachers using immersion programs generally strive to deliver lessons in simple and understandable language that allows students to internalize English while experiencing the typical educational opportunities in the preschool or kindergarten curriculum. Sometimes students are pulled out for “English as a Second Language (ESL)” programs, which provide them with instruction—again in English— geared for language acquisition. The goals of English-only classrooms include development of English, but not development or maintenance of the child’s first language.

Transitional bilingual programs are increasingly the predominant model in most U.S. school-age programs. The purpose of this approach is to achieve enough English language proficiency to move quickly into the English-only mainstream. In early childhood settings, although the research is limited, there is some evidence that this model is also the most common one, particularly when multiple languages are represented in the child population and/or the primary-grade classrooms are English-only. This approach typically provides one or two years of support for the home language while children transition into English-only classrooms. The goal is to increase the use of English while decreasing the child’s reliance on the home language for communication and instructional activities. Early childhood programs that explicitly use this model are presumed to be helping the child transition quickly into English and become assimilated into the majority culture. The amount of support for home language development and culture varies according to multiple program and community factors.

Historically, research on the effectiveness of bilingual education programs has produced mixed results, in part because program evaluation studies—featuring appropriate comparison groups and random assignment of subjects or controls for preexisting differences—are extremely difficult to design. Moreover, there is considerable variation among the instructional approaches, settings, children, and communities being compared in such studies. While numerous studies have documented the benefits of bilingual programs, much of this research has faced methodological criticisms—as noted by a recent expert panel of the National Research Council (August and Hakuta, 1997).

When designing and evaluating the effectiveness of bilingual versus monolingual approaches in preschool, it is important to consider the distinctions between preschool and elementary school. During the early childhood years, children are actively acquiring a first language that will form the base for future cognitive and academic development. They are just developing the basic language skills necessary for benefiting from formal instruction; young children are also highly responsive to their social and language environment, and they are intricately embedded in their family culture, values, and language patterns. For these reasons and others, preschool is an ideal time for young children to learn two languages— their own as well as that of the dominant culture.

Recent program evaluations have tended to favor models that allow children to develop their native language skills to high levels of proficiency while they are learning English. The results of preschool program evaluations have demonstrated that native language instruction can confer long-term language and literacy advantages; and that high-quality preschool bilingual programs can promote both home language and English acquisition. In contrast, well-designed and carefully implemented English immersion programs for ELLs can lead to short-term gains in English acquisition (Rice and Wilcox, 1995), but children in these programs tended to lose their native language fluency over time (Oller and Eilers, 2002).

Recent research has linked loss of home language with poor long-term academic outcomes. R. Slavin and A. Cheung (2005) reviewed all the experimental studies on reading instruction for English language learners and concluded that teaching reading in the child’s home language and English at different times of the day leads to the best reading outcomes. Thus, early instruction in both languages can promote both goals and can also be used as the foundation of a two-way bilingual program that promotes Spanish acquisition for English-only children in addition to English fluency for ELL children.

Other researchers (Oller and Eilers, 2002) have also found that for Spanish speaking children learning English, two-way education as opposed to English Immersion showed few if any long-term advantages or disadvantages with regard to language and literacy in English, but that two-way education (dual language) showed significant advantages for bilingual children in acquisition of language and literacy in Spanish. An unexpected finding of their research was that children who speak Spanish at home quickly come to prefer to speak in English and that by third grade, many ELL children had lost fluency in their home language.

Lily Wong Fillmore (1996) has also documented the loss of language and cultural patterns among U.S. immigrant populations. She describes the pain and personal sense of loss that she experienced as a Chinese immigrant when she lost the ability to communicate with family members and the sense of shame associated with their cultural practices.

The important point to keep in mind for young ELL children is that their home language and cultural practices are fragile and susceptible to dominance by the English language and mainstream culture. The consequences of learning English too early without systematic support for the home language are certainly detrimental socially, culturally, and recent evidence points to negative long-term academic outcomes.

The literature on bilingual education has repeatedly reported linguistic, cognitive, metalinguistic, and early literacy advantages for children who successfully become bilingual over monolinguals. It is clear that many conceptual, literacy, and language skills transfer from the child’s first language to English. However, there are many unanswered questions around the impact of social class and bilingual education for very young children who have not yet developed proficiency in their first language. When ELL children from low SES families enter our early childhood programs, what are the costs of adding English when their native language abilities are significantly delayed? How much native language fluency is necessary before adding a second language? Does this vary by individual child characteristics and the resources of the program? While there are clearly social, economic, and cultural benefits to becoming bilingual and biliterate, the research has yet to conclusively describe the methods for achieving this goal.

Nevertheless, a consensus of researchers in bilingual education and language acquisition recognizes that the following propositions have strong empirical support and implications for early childhood: Native-language instruction does not retard the acquisition of English; Well-developed skills in the child’s home language are associated with high levels of long-term academic achievement; Bilingualism is a valuable skill, for individuals and for the country. See also Language Diversity; Literacy.

Further Readings: Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy and cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; Espinosa, L. (2006). The social, cultural, and linguistic components of school readiness in young Latino children. In L. M. Beaulieu, ed. The social-emotional development of young children from diverse backgrounds. Baltimore: National Black Child Development Institute Press; Espinosa, L., and S. Burns (2003). Early literacy for young children and English-language learners. In C. Howes, ed. Teaching 4-8year-olds literacy, math, multiculturalism, and classroom community. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, pp. 47-69; Garcia, E. E. (2005). Teaching and learning in two languages: Bilingualism and schooling in the United States. New York: Teachers College Press; Genesee, F., J. Raradis, and M. Crago (2004). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes; Oller, D. K. and R. Eilers, R., eds. (2002). Language and literacy in bilingual children. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters; Rodriguez, J. L., D. Duran, R. M. Diaz, and L. Espinosa (1995). The impact of bilingual preschool education on the language development of Spanish-speaking children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 10, 475-490; Slavin, R., and M. Calderon (2005). Succeeding in reading with English language learners. ASCD Audio CD; Tabors, P. (1997). One child, two languages: A guide for preschool educators of children learning English as a second language. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes; Winsler, A., R. M. Diaz, L. Espinosa, and J. L. Rodriguez (1999). When learning a second language does not mean losing the first: Bilingual language development in low-income, Spanish-speaking children attending bilingual preschool. Child Development 70(2), 349-362.

Linda M. Espinosa