Most schools around the nation teach almost exclusively in English, with the option for some students to pay for after-school language-learning programs or to take a language as an elective. As a result, students who enter schools without knowing English as their first language are less likely to do well in school or even graduate. But some schools, like those in the Woodburn School District, Oregon, are implementing dual-language programs—and seeing academic performance rise.
Woodburn has found that its dual-language programs not only help students learning English do better: they also foster children’s understanding of and appreciation for other cultures and other languages. Additionally, dual-language programs can help to close segregation gaps between students, segregation that places native English speakers in one room and all students learning English in another where they may never get the support they actually need.
“By becoming a dual-language district, we’ve made a statement about how much we value diversity and different viewponts,” said Chuck Ransom, Woodburn’s superintendent. “We’ve been a big player in helping to bring prosperity and solidarity.” Students in the programs are more likely to embrace diversity, too, through cross-cultural and cross-lingual friendships.
Learning new languages is proven to bolster children’s cognitive abilities, too. Some research suggests that young children who are bilingual developed the concept of “object permanence” more quickly than children who spoke only one language. Increased skills in critical thinking, creativity, and ability to adapt have also been observed.
But while dual-language programs are increasing in number around the United States, they still represent only a pocket of the nation’s education. The quest to find teachers who are qualified to teach science in math in languages that aren’t English isn’t easy, and Ransom is hoping to work with universities to find qualified teachers or get students on the path to becoming teachers who can instruct higher-level classes in other languages.