Bilingualism in the US Education System

by Julia Kessel

Summary

In many elementary school classrooms across the United States, students are only allowed to speak English, whether or not that is their native language. These “English-only” classrooms are detrimental to children’s ability to learn and properly express themselves if English is not their first language. Since these policies tend to affect children who are native speakers of other languages, it disproportionately impacts minority students who speak other languages at home, most commonly being Spanish. This memo will go through the problem itself, the reasons for change and the best means to make these necessary changes. Increasing funding to schools with bilingual education programs would impact many minority students across the United States and help close the achievement gap between language groups. In the past, the “English-only” classrooms were implemented to help students learn English at a much quicker rate and become assimilated successfully into the classroom. For many students, public school may be the first time that they are exposed to English; therefore, throwing them into a class that is being taught in a language that they have never heard and surrounding them with peers who do not understand them can seriously deter them from learning and socializing. This memo will go more in depth to the reach of this problem and how the education system can successfully make a positive change to help these children who do not speak English in their homes.

Issue Analysis

When children are unable to speak the language that is most comfortable to them, it negatively impacts both their learning ability and their emotional wellbeing. This problem is becoming much more apparent because, as the chart below shows, the number of children who speak a language that isn’t English at home continues to rise. The United States is nearing almost 25% of children speaking languages other than English at home. As such, elementary schools need to accommodate those children and allow them to learn in a way that will bring them the most success in the future.

Since English is a new and unfamiliar language to these children, they find themselves unable to express how they are feeling which leads to frustration and anger, often towards their teacher or their peers. For children to feel safe and able to learn in a classroom, they need to be able to ask questions and express their emotions which oftentimes, for younger children especially, is difficult enough in their native language, let alone when they can only speak in a language that they are not fully comfortable using. This is because before they are fluent they do not possess the vocabulary necessary to say everything that they are thinking and feeling in the classroom. This is important to note because although achievement gaps in the US are declining, they have begun to decline at a slower rate over recent years. Children who speak other languages at home often cannot properly absorb what is being taught to them. Their test scores and academic abilities decrease which is a contributing factor to the achievement gap between students who speak English as a first language and those who do not. This gap is shown in the chart below.

The difference between students who do not speak English at home and those who do is alarmingly clear. Adding bilingual education in schools would help children across the United States become more successful in academics and in life, which is an overarching goal of education as a whole. Without change, children who do not speak English at home will continue to struggle socially and academically. For the sake of children’s wellbeing and academic achievement, a change to the current system is necessary.

Recommendation

The most successful way to incorporate bilingualism into classrooms across the United States would be to implement a 50/50 dual language program in schools beginning in Kindergarten or 1st grade and continuing that program until at least 3rd grade. This would be modeled after the bilingual education program at Cahuenga Elementary School in Los Angeles, California. Both languages would be used equally in the classroom and almost all classroom or take home materials would be available in both languages as well. For fine arts classes such as art or music, the teachers would gain inspiration from cultures across the world rather than limiting their cultural reach. To make this program a reality, teachers would need to be trained extensively by the upper level staff at the schools such as principals and administrators. The teachers would also need to be fluent in both languages that are included in their school’s bilingual program. The schools would need to have more resources, such as books, toys and games available to them to allow students to have those materials in both languages. Teachers would be integral in this change because they would carry out the actual instruction in both languages. The biggest challenge to this change would be funding. The school districts would need to have more funding available to pay teachers and to pay for classroom resources. Depending on the distribution of funding by district, they could either move the funding from a different program to this one or they could increase taxes to the people who live in the school district. By increasing funding to schools that desire to operate bilingual classrooms, teachers and schools would be adequately prepared to run a successful bilingual program.

Impact

By creating a bilingual curriculum at schools in the United States, children who speak languages other than English at home will become more successful, both academically and socially. In the bilingual program at Cahuenga Elementary School, the student achievement gap narrowed from 131 to 60 points. This statistic proves the success of bilingual schools for students in an academic sense. These students were taught in a 50/50 classroom and learned their core subjects (language arts, math, science and social studies) in that environment. This allowed students to become comfortable with those subjects in multiple languages. In terms of social and emotional impacts, being able to speak both English and their first language allows students to feel comfortable in the classroom, express emotions and become more confident with their English speaking ability knowing that they can always revert back to their first language if necessary. Bilingual classrooms have a significant and positive impact on a student’s academic ability and on their social-emotional skills.

Conclusion

In conclusion, students who do not speak English at home have been put at an extreme disadvantage by the current system of “English-only” classrooms. The most successful way to reduce this disadvantage would be to increase funding to schools in order for them to create bilingual classes at elementary schools. These schools would create better learning environments for those children and would allow them to grow both academically and socially.

Bibliography

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Chen, Grace. “Inclusion or Exclusion? The ESL Education Debate.” Public School Review, 7 Apr. 2009, www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/inclusion-or-exclusion-the-esl-education-debate. 

“ Percentage of School Children Who Speak Another Language than English at Home in the U.S. from 1979-2018.” Childstats.gov, 2020, www.childstats.gov/pdf/ac2020/ac_20.pdf. 

Buckley, David. “The Pros and Cons of English Only in the Classroom.” Man Writes, 20 Aug. 2019, manwrites.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-english-only-in-the-classroom/. 

Fry, Richard. “III. National ELL Achievement Gaps.” Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, Pew Research Center, 30 Dec. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2007/06/06/iii-national-ell-achievement-gaps/. 

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