Don’t ban bilingual education (Guest post: Shannon Guss and Ryan Gentzler)

Photo by Texas A&M University
Photo by Texas A&M University

Shannon Guss is the Educare Project Director at the Early Childhood Education Institute (ECEI) at the University of Oklahoma  – Tulsa. Ryan Gentzler is a Research Associate at ECEI and an OK Policy Research Fellow.

With two bills from 2011 and again this year with SB 522, Oklahoma legislators have proposed to ban bilingual education in Oklahoma. These bills would have dramatically expanded the impact of State Question 751, which established English as the official language of the state. Although the bills failed both this year and in 2011, we should be troubled by these repeated attempts to ban a proven, effective method for educating students.

For all students, and especially those in early childhood (birth to eight years of age), a large and growing body of evidence shows that learning two languages offers a wide array of enduring benefits. Dr. Linda Espinosa, the keynote speaker at the Early Childhood Leadership Institute at OU-Tulsa in 2008 and 2009, completed a synthesis of research on the subject that highlights cognitive, academic, and social benefits of learning two languages from an early age. Below, we summarize some of the most important takeaways from her 2013 report.

Learning two languages promotes brain development

The effects of learning two languages are so profound that they can be seen when comparing brain scans of bilingual and monolingual children. “Young bilingual children,” Dr. Espinosa writes, “develop more widely dispersed and evenly distributed neural pathways across both brain hemispheres,” essentially giving them access to more processing power within their brains. The challenges that bilingual children face as they switch languages speed the development of their cognitive control and executive function, a set of skills that includes problem solving, reasoning, and working memory.

Learning two languages does not interfere with English acquisition

Though it is reasonable to think that learning two languages would confuse toddlers, Dr. Espinosa points out that the most recent scientific research has found no delay in English acquisition or academic performance when both languages are supported in roughly equal measure.  In fact, young children are quite capable of learning multiple languages — and are “hardwired” to become natively bilingual when exposed to two languages from a young age.

English-only immersion for young dual language learners may hurt them in the long run

Certainly, young learners need to be exposed to English in order to succeed in a predominately English academic and social environment. However, shifting too rapidly to an English-only environment can lead to communication problems between children and their extended families and hinder their academic achievement in English. Balancing the home language and English is the key. Students who are purposefully exposed to both languages “consistently out-perform those who attend English-only programs on measures of academic achievement in English during the middle and high school years,” according to Dr. Espinosa.

All students benefit from bilingual education

The effectiveness of bilingual education is “astounding” for raising academic achievement among students of all backgrounds, according to a long-term study of various programs throughout the country. In school districts in places as different as Houston (where the student body is 54 percent Latino, 33 percent Black, and 10 percent White) and rural Maine (where 90 percent of students are white), students in bilingual programs vastly outpaced their peers in English classrooms. No matter the home language, students benefit enormously from learning more than one language in school.

Students at two Tulsa Public Schools magnet programs, Zarrow International School and Eisenhower International School, provide great examples of this in our state.  Students at these schools receive instruction almost solely in Spanish or French for the first two years of their education while also receiving learning opportunities in English at home. An anecdote of the success of these schools can be seen in the recent results of an engineering competition for students, where both schools placed in the top 5.

Given achievements like these, it’s no surprise that parents whose children attend Zarrow and Eisenhower have been among the most vocal critics of English-only legislation. If any schools qualify as a “bilingual or bicultural education program” under the law, Zarrow and Eisenhower are certainly among them, meaning their entire curriculum would be “presumed to diminish or ignore the role of English as the official language” of Oklahoma. As written, SB 522 would almost certainly force these schools to overhaul their curriculum and eliminate the benefits that bilingual education provides.  Policies informed by research suggest that more balanced approaches are necessary.

This research – and the clear success of schools like Zarrow and Eisenhower – offer ample reason to resist any future calls for English-only legislation that bans bilingual education. Far from undermining the role of English, bilingual education provides immense benefits to students that last a lifetime and prepare children for the global economy.

The views expressed here represent the authors’ thinking and analysis of current research; it is not an official OU position. The opinions stated above are also not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

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