Language is an important tool of communication. For kids to speak multiple languages it brings an understanding that goes beyond the skill.
“The benefits of bilingual education are huge,” says Rebecca Rolland, a speech pathologist, lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of The Art of Talking with Children. “Kids aren’t just learning a language; they’re getting to know a whole way of life, which expands their understanding and appreciation for new cultures. Not everybody does things the same way, they learn—and this helps them be more open to those who are different.”
What is Bilingual Education?
Raised in a multilingual family, Meran Rogers, founder and executive director of Global Ambassadors Language Academy (GALA) in Cleveland, understands the importance of bilingual education. Her experience being raised by immigrant parents and the desire to help her own children connect to their heritage were part of her decision to open GALA, a K-8 Spanish and Mandarin language immersion school.
“Bilingual education is providing education in two languages, which means that it’s not just learning that second language as a special or an elective,” Rogers says.
Instead, she says that students in a bilingual program are immersed in the language for part of every day and across subjects. “If you’re in a Spanish program you’re learning Spanish language arts, but you’re also learning other subjects in Spanish, whether it be math or science or social studies.”
According to Rogers, the goals of a bilingual education program can vary.
If a bilingual school or program serves a primarily Spanish-speaking neighborhood, Rogers says that the goal may be to maintain those language skills while working toward English proficiency. “It is ultimately the population that you serve.”
At GALA, students entering their Spanish or Mandarin immersion programs in kindergarten or first grade are not required to have any prior language skills.
“Our program is additive,” she says. “We’re adding a language that doesn’t already exist for the majority of our children.”
Importance of Bilingual Education
While the primary goal of bilingual education is for students to become fluent in more than one language, there are other cognitive and social-emotional benefits, according to Rolland.
“Bilingual education helps kids be cognitively flexible, or able to shift back and forth from one idea to the next,” Rolland says. “Think of bilingual education like a rubber band, helping kids stretch beyond their usual ways of thinking and question their assumptions.”
According to Ryan Wertz, lead consultant for World Languages, Global Education and the Ohio Seal of Biliteracy with the Ohio Department of Education, being proficient in another language and culture can also be advantageous in terms of college and career readiness.
“Today’s learners are members of a highly connected global society,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans are employed by companies that are direct foreign investors in our state. Workers who have high levels of proficiency and intercultural skills in the native language of their employer generally have greater mobility within the company and earn more than their mono-lingual coworkers.”
Wertz adds that bilingual workers are needed in many fields. “Building a multilingual workforce is also becoming critically important in our state with regard to trade and manufacturing, health care, the judicial system, emergency response, customer care, food service, construction and education, just to name a few examples,” he says.
Alongside a language immersion program, Rogers encourages families to make use of apps like Duolingo to practice language skills.
“It’s a really good app,” she says. “Depending on whatever level you’re at, it will adjust.”
Rolland also suggests reinforcing language skills at home through the apps. “For younger children, Gus on the Go is great, since it’s interactive and uses games, stories, and videos,” she says.
While these apps can be a fun way to practice at home together, Rogers stresses that you can’t expect proficiency without language immersion. “It’s all of that social language that really makes a difference,” she says.