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Districts Diversify Languages Offered in Dual-Immersion

By Corey Mitchell — September 16, 2015 5 min read
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As demand for dual-language-programs surges around the country, school districts are beginning to offer students a broader array of target languages to learn.

School leaders in New York City, the nation’s largest district, are expanding their dual-language offerings beyond Spanish and Mandarin to include Russian, Hebrew, Japanese, and Haitian Creole.

The Houston school district opened an Arabic-language school this year, in part because the metropolitan region has seen its Arabic-speaking population spike in recent years.

And in the Westminster, Calif., schools, the state’s first Vietnamese dual-language program opened in Little Saigon, a Vietnamese enclave in Orange County.

For decades, a desire to preserve native languages has driven demand for programs. Economics also play a sizable role, with a growing number of states seeing foreign language as the key to accessing the global economy.

There’s also a growing recognition among educators that dual-language learning has shown great promise for increasing achievement for students who are English-learners.

Government and industry leaders in Utah and Delaware have ramped up resources and funding in recent years, offering languages ranging from Portuguese to Mandarin, with the goal of developing a multilingual work force to lure international companies to their states in an increasingly global job market.

Such efforts have triggered substantial growth in the number of Mandarin dual-language programs. Roughly 10 Mandarin dual-language programs existed in the United States before 2009. That number has now swelled to nearly 200.

“People become more interested in learning the language of the nation we think we’re competing with economically,” said Martha Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Efforts by the Confucius Institute, a nonprofit organization tied to the People’s Republic of China, have helped spur the growth of Mandarin foreign-language programs in the United States, said Farhan Shah, the director of global education for the Houston school district. Launched in 2004, the institute aims to promote Chinese language and culture through association with colleges and secondary schools around the world.

New Languages

In dual classes, teachers split instruction time between English and the target language, though the balance of time spent teaching in each language can vary program to program.

Opening more dual-language schools is part of Houston Superintendent Terry Grier’s plan to graduate more bilingual students.

The district hopes to add dual-language programs in French and Hindi within two years, and it is eyeing Japanese and Russian as future options.

“The district sees itself as an international player,” said Shah, who oversees the district’s non-Spanish programs.

This school year, the Arabic-language school, one of only a few in the nation, has enrolled 130 kindergarten and prekindergarten students. Nearly 500 families applied for admission to the magnet school.

Almost half the students in the 10,000-student Westminster district are English-learners, and are almost an even split of Spanish- and Vietnamese-speakers. Kindergarten students at the district’s DeMille Elementary School are enrolled in the Vietnamese dual-language program this year, with staff planning to expand it to 1st grade for the 2016-17 school year.

Teachers from neighborhood Vietnamese-language schools, which have been the traditional venue for students to learn the language of their parents and grandparents, sat on the school’s textbook community.

“There was a groundswell of support for this,” said Renae Bryant, the executive director of the district’s office of language acquisition. “It’s about offering the best opportunity for students.”

But local community members aren’t always so welcoming of the language programs.

Houston opened a Mandarin school without controversy in 2010, but the same political and economic context that created a favorable environment for Chinese-language instruction could curtail the expansion of Arabic-language schools.

Hecklers protested outside the Houston school on the first day of classes, claiming the school was anti-American and catered mostly to Arabic-speaking immigrant families. On the second day of classes, supporters outnumbered the critics.

Nationally, Arabic classes have failed to become a common offering in U.S. public schools despite a 2006 initiative by former President George W. Bush to increase the number of U.S. citizens learning, speaking, and teaching Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi, and other languages considered critical for national security reasons. The effort included grants to language programs and K-12 districts that agreed to expand instruction in those languages.

“I just don’t think there’s political will in the United States,” said Tara Fortune, director of the Research Program at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota.

Shah, of the Houston district, begs to differ.

“What hasn’t been difficult is drumming up demand,” Shah said. “Our waitlist shows the demand is there.”

Challenges, Goals

The rise in new target-language options comes despite the fact that Spanish is overwhelmingly the most common home or first language of the nation’s English-language-learner students. An analysis by the Migration Policy Institute shows that roughly 70 percent of student ELLs are Spanish-speakers. No other language accounts for more than 5 percent of school-age language-learners.

The lack of qualified teachers and classroom materials has slowed, if not constrained, the growth of programs in languages with few native speakers in the United States.

Still, the new programs are cropping up as a national commission undertakes the first nationwide study on foreign-language learning in more than 30 years.

Formed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a group of national experts in education, research, business, and government, the commission hopes to launch nationwide dialogue about the need for investment in foreign languages and international education.

“We are seeing a shift in the field toward a preference for two or more languages for all children,” Fortune said.

Few dual-language programs existed in the 1970s. Much has changed since then, and more may be on the horizon.

“Internationalism is a broad and fertile ground for us to grow in as American educators,” Shah said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Districts Expand Languages in Dual-Immersion Programs

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