Why Massachusetts public schools should bring back bilingual education

“¡Señora! ¡Señora! ¿Cómo se escribe esto en Inglés?” As I walked around the students’ desks in the second grade classroom, Juan was asking me how to write the word “house” in English on his worksheet. I answered him in English, as this is what I was told to do while volunteering in the Sheltered English Immersion classroom in a Worcester County school. Back in 2002, bilingual education in Massachusetts public schools was banned under Question 2, meaning students’ native languages could only be used when absolutely necessary. Parents can even sue school personnel for using a child’s native language in the classroom. The primary goal: all English, all day. After one year of sheltered immersion, kids are placed into mainstream classrooms — regardless of their progress.

But Juan and his family had just arrived from the Dominican Republic. There was no way he would be ready to move on by the end of the year. Just teaching him simple words such as “lunch time” had been a struggle. It seemed unfair  that Juan was being forced to function in an English-only environment when he had virtually no understanding of what was going on around him. 

Juan’s experience was the opposite of what’s currently going on in pricey private schools. While Massachusetts public schools have cut out bilingual education,  private language-immersion schools are booming with business. Many bilingual preschools in Boston are advertising spaces on their wait-lists. Parents are clamoring to expose their young children to languages such as Mandarin or Spanish as early as possible, and are willing to pay around $13,000 a year to do it. 

After learning more about bilingualism as a volunteer in sheltered immersion classrooms, as well as in my study of child development during my master’s and doctoral programs, I believe that students would be better off in bilingual classrooms. The research is clear: bilingual is best. Bilingual students have better cognitive capabilities like attention and inhibitory control (being able to focus on a task or problem when some kind of distracting information gets in the way.) Plus they have greater mental flexibility, and can be more creative problem solvers.

Emma Lougheed, co-founder of the Spanish-English bilingual Pine Village Preschool, agrees that bilingual education is beneficial for students. Five of their eight locations are already full for September, and the three were at about 80% capacity at the time of our conversation in mid-July. Lougheed said they see three primary benefits to bilingual preschools. First, cognitive benefits – Lougheed explained that as children learn two languages at the same time, new pathways are created in the brain, helping with children’s problem solving and other academic skills later in life.

Secondly, she explained that when children speak two languages, they learn multiple ways to express a single word. This allows them to have a greater vocabulary base and gives them multiple words to choose from when they need to express themselves, thus facilitating communication. Lastly, like many other bilingual preschools, Pine Village immerses children in other cultural aspects besides language. She explained that their students come from 24 different linguistic backgrounds, so children are exposed to a diverse community of learners. They teach children about the culture of Spanish-speaking countries, generally the ones that the teachers come from, so children learn songs, stories and customs from around the world.

We know that bilingualism brings cognitive and social advantages and exposes children to a wider variety of cultural experiences. So it’s time we re-think bilingual education, and question why we aren’t supporting it in public schools.