Apr 5, 2022 - World

U.S. sees explosion of dual-language programs

Animated illustration of a speech bubble rotating between different languages, all say "Hello!".
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The number of Spanish immersion schools and dual-language programs in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the past decade.

Why it matters: The growing number of these programs shows not only the cultural impact recently arrived Latinos have had in the U.S., but also how families are embracing multilingualism after decades of rejecting it.

Driving the news: Several studies have found that speaking more than one language makes people smarter.

  • And research shows K-12 students who are in dual-language programs for several years often perform as well as, or better than, their peers in core academic content areas by late elementary school.

By the numbers: There were about 1,000 dual-language programs in U.S. public schools in 2010, said Gregg Roberts, the director of dual-language studies atAmerican Councils Research Center (ARC).

  • By 2021, more than 3,600 such programs existed, ARC reported finding.
  • About 80% of these programs were Spanish programs, and 8.6% were Chinese.

At least 50% of daily instruction has to be in a non-English language to be considered dual-language.

  • There are also various models, such as two-way instruction, in which English speakers are placed in classrooms with native speakers of the other language, or one-way programs, which enroll mostly English speakers.

The big picture: California, Utah, Texas, North Carolina and New York had over 200 dual language and immersion programs each in 2021, while Washington, Minnesota, New Mexico and Florida each had between 101 and 200 programs, ARC found.

  • “We fought for it because it was the right thing to do. Now I think the research stands behind us,” says Tony Baez, an education leader in Milwaukee, Wis., who has been advocating for dual-language education since the early 1970s.

Yes, but: Dual-language programs may not equally benefit students from immigrant or disadvantaged background, says Lisa M. Dorner, a researcher and associate professor at the University of Missouri.

  • "Are we just creating programs so that English-dominant (students) learn another language? Or are educators ensuring English learners have access and equity?" she asks.

Flashback: Recent generations of Latinos were discouraged and even punished for speaking Spanish in schools, and the 1990s saw a wave of English-only legislation, particularly in California, Arizona and Massachusetts.

  • California recently repealed its English-only law, but Arizona still requires English learners to be in all-English classes. Both states have large Latino populations.

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