September 27, 2004

Educators stress value of bilingual education

by Paula M. Davenport

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A grassroots campaign to establish a downstate public school program with lessons taught in two languages — English and Spanish — is gathering a groundswell of support, say members of an area-wide coalition in favor of the idea.

Language experts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale are helping spearhead the movement, known as dual- language instruction.

Common in northern Illinois, California, Texas, Colorado, Florida, Utah and elsewhere, these sorts of programs turn out bilingual youngsters — fluent in English and another foreign language — who develop superior cognitive abilities, say SIUC linguists Joan E. Friedenberg and Mary V. Montavan, both faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and consultants to the coalition.

They consider Spanish language to be an educational resource in such programs. Friedenberg and Montavan are working side by side with the Southern Illinois Dual Language Coalition, an ethnically diverse group of teachers, parents, collegians and the general public.

And youngsters in dual-language classes score as well or better than their monolingual peers on academic achievement tests, they say.

Perhaps just as importantly, dual-language instruction advances the highest qualities of multiculturalism, adds Friedenberg and Montavan.

"Dual language programs bridge barriers in communities," says Friedenberg. "I've seen it myself in California, where I worked before coming here."

With growing numbers of Latino residents, America is gradually becoming a bilingual nation, she says. Just look and listen to today's ads and public service announcements.

"Coca-Cola, shampoo, automated answering systems — all offer information in both Spanish and English. I think private industry has figured it out – Spanish speakers are a major portion of our population. We just need to get the schools to follow along," Friedenberg believes.

In a nutshell, here's how a dual- language program works:

"It's essentially two-way immersion programs. It's a Spanish language immersion program for English-speaking children and a bilingual language program for Spanish-speaking children," explains Friedenberg.

"For example, the first year begins with a single kindergarten class of 10 English-speaking and 10 Latino, Spanish-speaking children. They study everything together. About 80 percent of lessons are taught in Spanish," she says.

The second year, the school expands the program, adding the next highest grade level for the inaugural class that's matriculated — while continuing dual-language kindergarten instruction. Each year thereafter, another grade level is added until the program is offered at least through sixth grade.

"This makes it so easy for school districts to plan because it happens gradually," says Friedenberg.

The percentage of lessons taught in Spanish decreases about 10 percent each successive year

while the percentage of lessons delivered in English rises. From fourth grade forward, an equal mix of English and Spanish is heard in the classroom.

"Everyone is missing a language. So Spanish speakers are experts in their native tongue and English speakers are experts in English. But no language is superior," she says.

Meanwhile, the majority of pupils move through conventional classrooms taught in English only — serving families who prefer traditional American elementary education.

However, dual-language programs encourage cultures to get closer, engendering empathy, understanding and acceptance.

Our country will need to embrace ethnic diversity if it's to improve its standing in the global village, which still views ethnocentric Americans as "ugly," Friedenberg says.

Leading in scholarly activities and serving others are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the long-range plan the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.