The multiple benefits of learning two languages

06.14.2017 | EdSource | Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio

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Despite fear-based immigration rhetoric and policy proposals out of our nation’s Capitol, California is working to turn the page on phobia. When it comes to education policies impacting children in immigrant families – and any family where a language other than English is spoken at home – the California Legislature and voters have opted for science over fear.

By a substantial margin in November, California voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 58, an initiative that gives all California students the opportunity to learn English and another language. Parents and the public increasingly recognize the economic and educational value of speaking more than one language and the relative ease with which young children, especially, can achieve that goal.

Now that decision at the ballot box has been bolstered by respected research. Recently, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine reported that dual language learners, children who develop their home language and English early in life, benefit from enhanced cognitive skills and academic outcomes in school. The Academy’s report, Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures, provides a clear roadmap for California and any state looking to strengthen child development and education systems, close achievement gaps and embrace the languages and cultures of their children as assets.

The goal is to have children master English quickly without losing their native language. Our understanding of how best to achieve that goal has substantially evolved. We now know that educators, doctors and others in positions of influence with parents were misinformed in issuing now-outdated warnings that children could become confused by learning two languages.

Scientific evidence clearly points to a universal, underlying human capacity to learn two languages as easily as one, and the years before children enter kindergarten represent the golden moment for bolstering capacity in both languages.

Perhaps most important, the National Academy is telling us clearly to “do no harm,” by laying out the research showing that dual language learners can actually be set back in both languages when their exposure to their home language is limited in the early years. Given more demanding school curricula and the fact that English learners frequently find themselves on the wrong end of a stubborn achievement gap, we cannot afford to have policies in place that set them, or any student, back.

This is an important issue nationally, where English learners represent nine percent of students in public schools. But it is bedrock for states like California, where English learners make up 22 percent of our K-12 population, according to recent data from the California Department of Education. And among children birth to age 5, the numbers are even greater – nearly 60 percent are dual language learners.

California is home to some promising models, the report says. It recognizes California’s curriculum framework, which acknowledges the importance of family engagement and provides educators with practices to build meaningful relationships with families. It also cites the Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) model, a promising approach that connects English learners’ preschool and early elementary experiences with the goal of developing mastery of a new generation of rigorous standards, academic success and confident and joyful learners.

recent report shows that California’s transitional kindergarten (TK), which prepares 4 year olds developmentally, academically and socially for K-12, is giving English learners an undeniable advantage in kindergarten compared to peers who did not attend TK. The report, released by American Institutes for Research, finds English learners who went to TK were six months ahead in problem solving skills essential to math, seven months ahead in literacy skills, and an entire performance level ahead on the state’s English language proficiency test.

The National Academies report also points to some areas where we and other states still have work to do, including increasing the number of bilingual teachers and improving pre-service training that inadequately prepares educators to improve educational outcomes for dual language learners.

I am proud that the state Assembly proposed and the Senate and Governor Jerry Brown agreed to provide $10 million for the Bilingual Teacher Professional Development Program in the proposed 2017-18 state budget that the Legislature will vote on today. The funding is intended to provide professional development to existing teachers who are certified to teach bilingual education but have not done so in three or more years, or teachers who are fluent in a language other than English and wish to be certified as a bilingual education teacher.

At the local level, implementation of Proposition 58 offers schools the opportunity to consider implementing a multilingual/biliteracy program. Beginning next month, if parents of 20 students in one grade level, or 30 students schoolwide, request a multilingual/biliteracy program, it will trigger exploration and implementation of a biliteracy program in that school.

The California Association of Bilingual Educators advises that quality multilingual programs are created with careful planning, resources, and preparation and encourages districts not to rush. In addition, the California State Board of Education will also approve guidelines and regulations.

It may be fashionable these days in Washington, D.C., to dismiss California as out of step with the pendulum swing of national politics. But the world’s 5th largest economy is getting in step with the latest science on the best educational approaches for children from a wide variety of backgrounds. There’s nothing experimental, or even political, about it. It’s just good policy.

Assemblywoman Blanca E. Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) represents the communities of Azusa, El Monte and West Covina (East of Los Angeles) in the California State Legislature.