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What Is Bilingual Education?

They say the United States of America is like the melting pot, its ancestors came all over the globe to make up the population of the most powerful country in the world. It is for that reason that the U.S. has no official language, even though the majority of schools are taught in English. The students who speak other language feel lost, confused, and uncomfortable, but there is a solution to this – bilingual education. Everybody is talking about it, but no one fully understands the meaning, purpose, and benefits of bilingualism and bilingual education for children. So, let professionals from get back to business.


Children talking


Bilingual Education: Meaning and Goals

Bilingual education is a program that involves teaching academic content in two languages (the native and second one) with varying amounts of each language used, according to the program of an educational institution. In a bilingual classroom, a professor teaches both in English and the students’ native language. The switchover is done gradually in order to give the students time to adjust. Bilingual education focuses on the learners being fluent in both languages and holding on to their culture.

There are many challenges with bringing together different elements of the school community in the sense of academic preparation, social and language differences. What may help is bilingual education, where students who are native Spanish speakers, for example, get native language instruction alongside English-native speakers who want to learn Spanish. So, using such a simple scheme, students who are learning English are tutoring the students who are learning Spanish. In other classes, native English speakers assisting the native Spanish speakers with comprehension on things and working together as peers.

Usually, bilingual programs start in the 6th grade, where students have their core classes in English (math, social studies, science, language), and three electives ones. Two of those elective classes actually would be for the bilingual program (usually, it is reading and language arts). In 7th grade, they learn geography in the second language to learn about another culture using new vocabulary. By the 8th grade, schools offer one class in the second language, using a more advanced level of vocabulary. So, before the school leaving age, the students become proficient in the second language.

Bilingual education strengthens the cognitive processing and analysis ability of children. They can go to the skills that they have in the other language to support and increase the skills in the second language.

Benefits of the Bilingual Education




There are many different approaches to bilingual education as well as to teaching and learning subjects such as math and science through an additional language. Content and Language integrated learning approach (CLIL) is the most frequently used one. At school with CLIL approach, math and science teacher help learners to master the content of the subject and acquire the necessary vocabulary to do this. It encourages language learning skills such as summarizing, asking for clarification, and dictionary skills.

If you look at the bilingual program, students do not only learn the terms that they use in a subject lab, for example. There is also day to day terms. For instance, when a professor decides on the variant you get on an exam, he or she “toss a coin” to get “heads or tails”. In the average grammar book, you won't find this expression.

So, besides the increase of mental flexibility and development of inter-cultural skills, there are at least two main reasons to incorporate bilingual programs into our education system: a cognitive and economic one.

Cognitive Benefit of Bilingual Education

Nowadays, we know much more than we knew even ten years ago about how the brain functions with respect to languages. Quite honestly, a monolingual mind is at a disadvantage. And that is why.

Bilinguals perform better at a variety of non-linguistic tasks. That is commonly linked to something that is called “executive control”. It is a set of abilities, such as shifting and focusing attention, inhibiting distracting stimuli, and having the flexibility to switch between tasks. So, bilinguals are better multitaskers than monolinguals. Their metalinguistic abilities are trained and heightened. They consciously experience the contrast between two languages, and this leads to greater awareness of language itself. They are aware of linguistic forms, their structure, meanings, and cross-linguistic equivalents.

For instance, a bilingual child might comment that Spanish has articles like “un/una and el/la”, in English, there are the same equivalents, such as “a” and “the”.


Student writing at the desk


Bilingual education helps to revitalize better and more profound ways of thinking. Researchers have found that bilinguals can stave off the negative effects of dementia for about four years. So, the pathology is present in the brain of bilingual. It is thought that these people have more robust neural networks, then the bilinguals are able to bypass the pathology and therefore, remain mentally active for an extra four years.

Moreover, it appears that they are better able to concentrate on the goal. So, in this information-rich society, where people are constantly receiving messages and being bombarded by information, bilinguals can remain better focused on the task at hand and not be drawn away from it.

Bilingual Education: Economic and Academic Benefits

Economic advantage is quite obvious. The research by the University of Florida found that fully bilingual people earn an average of nearly $7,000 more per year than their peers who speak only one language. Academic benefits of being bilingual include:

  • learning new words much faster;
  • breaking down words by sounds;
  • putting the vocabulary of the second language into categories;
  • being able to use information in new ways;
  • good listening skills, etc.

However, when it comes to academic benefits, we have to clarify some things. The researches proved that Chinese-English bilinguals and French-English bilinguals do not differ from monolinguals, while Spanish-English bilinguals outperform the others. Why would this be? Well, the explanation is in cross-linguistic similarity. These two languages have similar ways of marking the plural. There is a strong regularity, namely an “s” at the end of the word. It works in comparable ways across both languages. Chinese and English do not work in the same way. In French, there is an “s”, but you can't hear it, so it does not give you any advantages if you are a young child.

Test Your Child: Choose Bilingual Program on Not To?

Bilingual abilities can be tasted in a variety of ways. For example, when bilingual children hear an utterance, they focus separately on its form and its meaning. If your child can do it too, the chances are that he or she has a high metalinguistic ability. Here is a little game you can try up with your children in order to determine whether they have such abilities.

The game is called “the sun-moon problem”. The sun and the moon played a game, they switched their names. So, given this premise, what would you call the thing that you see in the sky at night? How would the sky look at night? Would still be dark? A child with metalinguistic abilities will ponder and answer the question immediately.

So, broaden your horizons, think differently, be bilingual.


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