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Equalizing the Status of Both Languages
in a Dual Immersion School

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2001, Vol. 5, No. 1

By Megan Unger, kindergarten teacher, Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center, Minneapolis, MN

 


 

"Teacher, do we have to read that book in Spanish?"
"Teacher, we don't understand when you talk in Spanish!"

 

These were comments made by some particularly vocal students in my kindergarten class at Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center, a dual immersion school in downtown Minneapolis. My students' comments have prompted me to think about the atmosphere I create in my classroom, as well as the atmosphere of our school, and whether it is as Spanish-friendly as it needs to be. The school's student population is composed of approximately 33% native Spanish speakers and 67% native English speakers, of whom many are of Latino descent. How much Spanish do my students hear, how much language do they produce, and what is their attitude towards hearing and speaking Spanish?

Being a dual immersion school rather than a full immersion school presents several unique challenges. Emerson is a 50/50 immersion program even at the kindergarten level, meaning instruction is provided half the time in English and half the time in Spanish. While the obvious solution may simply be to speak more Spanish, that may not be in keeping with the school's philosophy, at least as it stands now.

 

Kindergarten 'amigas' - learning & laughing
in two languages.

Dual Immersion Education: Benefits for All

 

The first dual immersion programs, though they weren't known as such, began in the early 1960's in response to the first influx of Spanish-speaking children into U.S. school systems. In the 1970's, the programs gained support as English-speaking parents began to recognize the benefits of enrolling their children in dual-language programs. Today, there are more than 200 dual immersion programs in the U.S., whose programs "typically include speakers of the two target languages and provide core academic instruction in both languages over a period of years with the objective of creating bilingualism and biliteracy in both groups of students" (Genesee, 1999, n.p.).

Dual immersion programs also strive to foster an environment of cross-cultural exchange and understanding. Given the diversity of the student population inherent in most dual immersion programs, they seem uniquely equipped to meet this goal. Taking cross-cultural understanding a step further, some argue that dual language programs can even combat prejudice and racism. By creating an environment in which two languages and cultures are equally valued, the minority language and culture are assigned a status equal to that of the majority language and culture. According to Genesee (1999, n.p.), "Dual-language programs...conceptualize non-English languages as a resource for English learners and as enrichment for English speakers. Thus, by valuing other languages, dual-language programs give these languages, and their speakers, greater prestige."

As immersion educators, we are constantly challenged by the need to elicit student talk, especially as students advance through a typical full immersion program.We attribute their reluctance to speak partially to their lack of knowledge of the vernacular in the target language. Dual immersion programs differ from full immersion programs in that they provide, at least in theory, native-language peers who can model the vernacular for both groups of students. Craig, in her two-way immersion parent handbook, writes, "By combining children from both of these groups in one classroom for two-way immersion instruction, all of them receive the added benefits of peer age-group native speaker models of the second language, as well as the opportunity to form friends from different cultural backgrounds through daily interaction at school" (Craig, 1995, p. 26).

A third benefit of dual immersion programs is that of community support for the education of language-minority students. While in many areas of the country, bilingual education as a means for educating language minority children is coming under fire, these same areas are often in support of dual immersion programs, which provide an enriched education for native English speakers. Valdés (1997, pp. 393, 395) believes that, indirectly, native Spanish speaking children also benefit: "Linguistic-minority children will still be able to begin their education in their first language, while the presence of anglophone children will ensure community support...the presence of mainstream students in dual-immersion programs offers language-minority children what appears to be the best of both worlds: access to instruction in their primary language, and access to both school and community support."

Both language-majority and language-minority students, therefore, can reap the benefits of dual language immersion programs. Language majority children receive an "enriched" education, becoming bilingual and biliterate while learning the same content their peers in other non-immersion schools are learning. Language minority students have the opportunity to form a strong academic base in their native language, upon which they can build in the later grades.

Challenges Facing Dual Immersion Programs

 

While a dual language program may appear to be an ideal learning situation for both language minority and language majority students, one in which both languages and cultures are equally valued, some issues have arisen which question that assumption. Are English and Spanish truly given an equal status in dual immersion schools?

First, the political and social status of the students' families must be examined. In some dual immersion programs, students come from two different groups: one which is English-speaking, middle class, and usually European American; and one which is Spanish-speaking, working class, and Latino. (This demographic breakdown is not found in all dual immersion programs: for instance, it does not accurately describe the student population at Emerson.) Each group has access to a different kind of "cultural capital," one which is traditionally valued by U.S. schools, and one which is not. According to McCollum (1999, p. 113), "Schools and other symbolic institutions contribute to the reproduction of inequality by devising a system that rewards the cultural capital of mainstream groups while devaluing working class or non-mainstream forms of knowledge."

Delgado-Larocco conducted a study of a two-way immersion kindergarten in California, where there was a sharp division between the two group of students served by the school. According to Delgado-Larocco, because of Spanish-speaking parents' cultural status, they are placed in a subordinate role relative to English-speaking parents. She found that the vocal parents, the parents who were more forthcoming with their needs and concerns and those who were more involved in school committees and decision-making, tended to be the English-speaking parents. Delgado-Larocco found that the teachers, in turn, tailored their instruction to meet the needs of their English-speaking students. "Given these factors, the teachers' instructional focus on the English native speakers was not only natural, but became imperative for the program and their own professional survival" (Delgado-Larocco, 1998, p. 318). In this subtle way, a shifting of the instructional focus to favor the English-speaking children's academic and language development, students are given a clear message about which language and culture are valued more by their school.

Another way in which dual immersion programs can devalue the cultural capital of language minority students is by not accepting the form of the language these students speak. For example, there are many different varieties of Spanish: an "academic", Castilian Spanish, Paraguayan Spanish, which is influenced by the native Guaraní language; and probably nearly countless other varieties spoken in different regions of different countries. McCollum cites the work of Kjolseth, who believes that when a "high" variety of a language, instead of a local variety, is used as the language of instruction, the speakers who use the local variety will switch to English before they use the "high" variety. McCollum also found this to be true: in a study of Spanish-speaking middle schoolers whose teacher continually corrected their "incorrect" language, the students eventually abandoned their native language in favor of English (McCollum, 1999).

Another question that has been raised by critics of dual immersion programs is that of the quality of education that language-minority students are receiving. Although on the surface a dual-immersion program seems like an ideal academic environment for a Spanish-speaking child, a closer look reveals some areas which need careful consideration.

One of the presumed benefits of a dual-immersion program is that children act as language models for each other. However, Delgado-Larocco's found that while Spanish-speaking children were acting as translators for their English-speaking peers, thereby demonstrating a knowledge of both languages, the teachers' response did not acknowledge this accomplishment. "Translations had the possibility of placing the SNSs (Spanish native speakers) in leadership roles, yet they primarily served the functions of safeguarding ENSs' (English native speakers) participation in the lesson and maintaining a smooth pace to the lessons...Although questions often placed SNSs in a modeling role, their function was not necessarily to boost the SNSs' self-concept, but one of providing a service for the English native speakers and/or the teacher" (Delgado-Larocco, 1998, p. 319).

Critics also question whether language minority students are receiving enough high-quality, academic language input to foster the development of their native language. Even when the teachers are native or near-native Spanish speakers, for example, they may tailor their language to meet the needs of the English speaking children, rather than the Spanish-speaking children. Delgado-Larocco found that the kindergarten teachers employed repetition and closed questions more often than open-ended questions. She argues that "The existing instructional practices in this classroom seem to place the ENSs in a superordinate role and the SNSs in a subordinate role...These students' roles mirrored the differences in the power relationship between the ENSs' parents and the SNSs' parents in the community" (Delgado-Larocco, 1998, p. 320).

Suggestions for Change Within Dual Immersion Programs

 

Dual immersion education programs, if implemented correctly, can offer both language-minority and language-majority students an outstanding school experience. Although she doesn't suggest that we scrap dual immersion education altogether, Valdés (1997, pp. 412) does suggest that we "exercise caution" as we move ahead. So how do we go about ensuring that the status of Spanish and English within dual immersion programs is truly equal and making dual immersion programs truly benefical for all students?

While schools, unfortunately, can't change the attitudes of the society at large, at least not immediately, teachers and school administrators can be mindful of the social and political issues that affect all their students and families. According to Delgado-Larocco, "Educators implementing two-way immersion programs cannot ignore these sociopolitical issues and focus only on instructional practices and linguistic factors. They must remain sensitive to the realities of intergroup relations in the surrounding communites and to the fact that majority and minority language children and their parents often live in very different worlds" (Delgado-Larocco, 1998, p. 315).

To this end, schools need to make a concerted effort to reach out to all their parents, to better learn what their circumstances and situations are, and to educate them about the specific tenets of a dual immersion program. For example, English-speaking parents could be educated about the benefits of being bilingual, as well as about the resources that could help them support their child's Spanish learning. Maybe the school could even offer Spanish classes for parents and families. If children saw that their parents value Spanish enough to learn it themselves, imagine what a clear message it would send! Spanish-speaking parents could be educated about the importance of speaking Spanish at home, and reading to their children in Spanish. English classes could also be offered for the Spanish-speaking families.

Another way in which Spanish and English can be equalized in the school setting is by reaching out to Spanish-speaking families with a native Spanish-speaking liaison. A teacher or staff member who acts as an advocate for Spanish-speaking parents, who can field phone calls, make home visits, and encourage parents to come to meetings or other school functions, would be an invaluable addition to a dual immersion program. A Spanish-speaking liaison can help ensure that native Spanish-speaking families' voices are heard.

According to Griego-Jones (1994), "…in promoting positive attitudes toward biliteracy, the first step is to better understand the attitudes students already have" (p. 87). To accomplish this, students and their families could be surveyed, formally and informally, to determine their attitudes about languages and language learning. Based on the survey results, teachers could incorporate new strategies into their curriculums and the school could plan parent education meetings. It is vital to use this information because "…students' feelings about their native language and second languages can't be separated from their feelings about self as learners and members of society…Students must be understood in terms of attitude as well as cognitive and linguistic processes in order to maximize biliteracy development in any and all bilingual classrooms" (Griego-Jones, 1994, pp. 81-82).

There are several other ways to influence or "upgrade" students' attitudes about the minority language. For example, in a dual Spanish/English immersion school, an effort could be made to maintain a 50/50 balance of native speakers of each language. Classrooms and the school library could be better-stocked with Spanish-language books, posters, games, and other materials. The program could be structured so that only English is spoken on some days, and only Spanish on others. Bilingual educational assistants could be given more of a teaching role, modeling native language for all students. (This would, of course, depend on the quality of the EAs; at Emerson we are lucky to have several exceptional ones.) Announcements during the school day could be made only in the target language. We must keep in mind, however, the goals of a dual immersion program such as Emerson, which are to provide 50% of the instruction in Spanish and 50% in English. So while the obvious solution may simply be to speak more Spanish, that may not be in keeping with all dual immersion schools' philosophies.

In addressing the issue of "high" versus "low" language varieties, I think teacher education is the key. I do not know all the forms of language my students use; I am not familiar with vocabulary words particular to certain regions of Mexico, for example. I am also unsure of the proper way to respond when children use tenses that I learned as incorrect, but may be acceptable in certain regions. Language classes or even trips to the parts of Mexico from which many of our students come would be very helpful.

Finally, to insure the quality of instruction for the minority-language students, teachers must be very aware of the roles they are assigning to their students, and very careful not to put language-minority speakers in "service"/interpreter roles. Teachers must also consciously plan activities in which language-minority students can develop their academic language; situations in which they're required to produce more than one-or two-word responses.

Conclusion

 

Though dual immersion education faces many challenges, I strongly believe that it can be extremely successful for all students. One of the keys to its success is its implementation in an atmosphere in which both languages are equally valued. It is the responsibility of teachers and administrators to create this environment, thereby allowing dual immersion to reach its full potential.

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Last Modified: March 25, 2014 at 10:19