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English-Language Learners

Arne Duncan Touts Advantages of Bilingualism

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 30, 2013 2 min read
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His comments aren’t likely to ignite a new battle in the bilingual education wars, but U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over breakfast yesterday gave perhaps his clearest statements to date on the benefits of dual-language development and instruction, especially for students who are English-language learners.

English-learners, he said in a meeting with reporters, come to school with a major asset—their home languages—that educators should capitalize on, especially in the early grades.

"[It] is clearly an asset that these kids are coming to school with,” and one that should be “maintained” so that English-learners can become truly bilingual, Duncan said.
“The fact that our kids don’t grow up [bilingual] puts them at a competitive disadvantage,” he said, noting that it’s common practice in many other countries for students to learn at least one other language.

His position is backed by research, most recently by a federally funded analysis that concludes that young English-learners still developing oral and literacy skills in their home languages benefit most from early-childhood programs that regularly expose them to both languages. In fact, the secretary put more emphasis on the benefits of providing bilingual education to English-learners in early-childhood programs, which does not spark the heated controversies and debate that it has in the K-12 space.

Over the course of 45 minutes and a bowl of cinnamon-speckled oatmeal topped with chopped green apples, Mr. Duncan spoke about a range of issues related to Hispanic students, including the potential he thinks the Obama administration’s universal preschool initiative holds for the Latino community. Nationally, children born into Latino families are less likely than their peers in other ethnic groups to take part in early-childhood programs that prepare them for school.

“Less than half of Hispanic children attend any sort of early-childhood education,” Duncan said. “It’s sort of staggering, and then we wonder why we have achievement gaps in kindergarten.”

He stressed the need to create more early-childhood programs in Latino neighborhoods and communities, whether they are provided by public schools, community organizations, or nonprofits. During his time as schools chief in Chicago, the district began offering evening prekindergarten—from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.—in some Hispanic communities where there were long waiting lists for morning and afternoon programs.

“People thought we were crazy,” he said. “But we had a huge take-up on that. You have to be creative about how you provide the opportunities.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.