Monday, July 31, 2006

Foreign Language Education in the Global World

Did you know that in all European countries, at least one foreign language is compulsory for all elementary students? It is quite normal for European citizens to speak at least three languages. While In the United States, approximately one fourth of all elementary schools offer a foreign language program and most US citizens can only speak one language. It is unfortunate that not all schools in the United States require students to learn a foreign language in elementary school.

The ability to speak a foreign language is a tremendous asset that the United States needs to cultivate. More businesses than ever are working in the international arena and are now requiring their employees to speak a foreign language. Speaking a foreign language might possibly be about as useful as getting a college degree when it comes to entering the job force. As the job market becomes more and more competitive, those with foreign language skills have the upper edge. If the United States is to keep a competitive edge in the international business world, we are going to have to succeed in educating more of our citizens to communicate in other languages.

Learning a foreign language isn't just useful abroad. The ability to speak a foreign language is also incredibly useful here in the United States. Whether in public service, sales or tourism, many employers are looking for employees with foreign langauge skills. Given this reality it is really quite surprising that more parents aren't demanding foreign language education in schools.

What We Can Learn From Foreign Language Teaching In Other Countries

Friday, July 28, 2006

The joys of multilingual children

While on a recent trip to México, we happened to stay at a hotel with many German, Swiss, French and even Mexican tourists. I have to say it was such a pleasure to see my children being able to make friends with children from all of those countries because of their language skills. One morning they would be splashing in the pool in German and in the afternoon they would be running around using Spanish. I don't believe there has been a single other moment that has more clearly illustrated the value of their multilingual upbringing. I started to think, is there possibly a disadvantage to being bilingual? I have not yet thought of one.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tips for raising bilingual children.

For those parents who are struggling to keep their children speaking their native language, here are some things that have helped us raise our trilingual children. Please add your tips as well.

1) Surround your child with your home language. If you don't have friends and family members who speak the language nearby, be sure to provide books, games, videos and posters that keep your child hearing and seeing the usefulness and importance of their home language.

2) This may seem controversial but it works! Shelter your child from English. Despite not using English at home and sending our children to immersion programs in a third language, they have scored amazingly high in English and have never been behind. How can this be? Their language skills in the other languages not only transfer over into English but they have the added advantage of having expanded their ability to learn languages, vocabulary and grammatical structures by becoming bilingual to begin with. The stronger their home language, the stronger their English will be as well. Also children in the United States soak up English like a sponge. They absorb it quicker than you can imagine. Despite not speaking to any of our children in English, all of them spoke fluent English before starting school. English is all around us and they hear it everywhere.

3) Praise your child for using their home language. Remind them frequently how great it is that they speak it and how special it is to be bilingual. Instill pride in them for their ability to use it.

4) Read to them, A LOT, in their native language. This will help them to expand their vocabulary beyond just everyday words. Increase the level of difficulty of the texts as they get older. Don't force them to read themselves. This should be a fun time to spend together.

5) Don't wait until later. In raising bilingual children, you really only have a couple of years before they are out in the English dominant world. Take advantage of those early years to instill as much of your home language in them as possible. Then, when they are in school, it will just be an issue of maintaining it and increasing their vocabulary. Starting a language from scratch after years of speaking in English will be much more difficult. They will see the use of any other language with you as unnatural.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Raising bilingual children isn't easy!

Anyone who has worked to raise their children to be bilingual or even trilingual in the United States knows it isn't easy. One would think it shouldn't be so difficult. Yet, even for those trying to raise their children to speak Spanish, in a country where Spanish is so widely spoken, will find themselves in an uphill battle. I could not even count the number of times parents have told me that they only speak to their children in their native language but that their children refuse to use the language and only respond in English. This is contrary to the claims of the English Only movement that immigrants do not learn English and stick together in language minority enclaves. While many immigrants continue to use their native language, the children of immigrants tend to grow up with very limited ability in their mother tongue unless there is a well-focused effort to keep children using their home language.

Just like learning to share or use the toilet, parents must be diligent in helping their children to become fully proficient in their native language. Ensuring that your children use the home language is challenging and takes extra work on the part of the parents. However, the benefits are endless. My personal experience comes from the efforts of my husband and I to raise our three trilingual children. Our eldest is now learning a fourth language in high school. Raising children to speak so many languages isn't magic. There are many ways parents can support their bilingual children. I would love to hear from you about your experiences in raising bilingual or trilingual children. What works? How can we help other parents with this challenging task? Your experiences and insight can offer much needed help and inspiration to other parents working towards the same goal.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Is it enough to speak a language to teach a language?

While attending an IBO (International Baccalaureate Organization) conference several months ago, the presenter reminded the crowd of elementary school teachers and administrators that the IBO Primary Years program has a language requirement that begins in the early elementary grades. Apparently several administrators were concerned as to where the money for such a program would come from and proceeded to offer a tip for other schools in dealing with this requirement. The suggested idea was to bring in parents who spoke the language the school wished to offer and have them teach it. They felt this would offer a supportive boost for the language minority parents and the students. The presenter felt this would be a great solution to the situation.
I was actually stunned. I could not imagine that they would consider parents to teach language classes to the children. Would they do that with the science or math program? How about we just have some parents come in and teach math to the students, then we won't have to pay a teacher. Just speaking the language is not enough. One needs to understand how language is developed and appropriate methods of teaching for various age levels. Teaching a language isn't an easy thing. It is much more challenging to handle classroom management when you are trying to speak to children in a language they don't understand.
Also, instead of boosting student's and parent's moral about the representation of their native language, they might actually discover that the administration did not care enough about their native language for it to merit a certified, experienced teacher. This sort of mentality is what continues to undermine the importance of foreign language programs in schools. Hopefully with new policies and foreign language teaching standards in place we can begin to create a change in all schools.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Foreign Language Education for All Children

How about a new educational policy? All children in the United States should begin learning a foreign language by age eight. Is this a radical proposal? Probably not when one considers that most other industrialized nations have cumpulsory foreign language requirements starting in elementary school. Many other countries even require two foreign languages be studied before attended a university. So, should we try to get this on the ballot? Ok. so maybe it wouldn't pass, especially given the amount of controversy that currently exists regarding bilingual education. But imagine the impact even trying to do so would have. We may just plant a little seed. Bilingual education should not just be for language minority students, it should be for ALL students. Every child in the United States should be expected to learn a foreign language. Lets give all our children the cognitive and social benefits of becoming bilingual. And for the all those nay-sayers, perhaps if we explain it will boost their child's SAT scores they just might vote in favor!

For more information see the following article presented by CAL: What We Can Learn From Foreign Language Teaching In Other Countries

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Hope for the future of language policy

In a time when so many people are being misled by the false accusations of the English Only movement, bilingual programs are being dismantled and more legislation regarding the exclusive use of English is pending, it is refreshing to learn that the new Institute for Language and Education Policy will soon become an active presence in this country. Language policy based on sound research and not ideology is what is needed in order to create educational programs and policies that will best serve our children.

The Institute for Language and Education Policy is "dedicated to promoting research-based policies in serving English-Language and heritage-language learners". Guiding this effort is a group of leading experts in the field of language policy and language learning, including; Stephen Krashen, Jim Cummins, Lily Wong Fillmore and James Crawford. To learn more about this organization and to become a founding donor please visit. It is inspiring to see action being taken and we hope you will support this effort.

Here is a PDF of the announcement of the Institute for Language and Education Policy

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Can language unify our country?

One of the greatest challenges to implementing more bilingual programs is the vast amount of opposition such programs face. The majority of this opposition comes from English Only advocates who fear that learning other languages will somehow create a nation of people who can't, or won't speak English. The basic premise to the English Only movement is that our country will only be completely united if we all speak one language. If that were true, how then would one explain other bilingual and multilingual countries, such as Switzerland, that have lived peacefully for decades with speakers of a variety of different languages.

On the other hand, if having a common language really had the power to prevent internal strife then certainly the civil war would never have happened, Ireland would have peace and civil wars in other monolingual countries would be unknown. It is apparent that being a monolingual country really has nothing to do with creating a united country. What seems to carry far more weight is the ability of its citizens to respect each other despite the language they speak or the religion they practice. In fact, if we really wanted to create a united country, learning about each other's cultures and languages would likely go much farther than attempting to erradicate them. Bilingual education in all schools would be a step closer to unifying our country and all the people that live in it.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy 4th of July

Bilingual Talk would like to wish you all a very happy 4th of July. Perhaps this is the perfect time to remember all of the immigrants who have made this country what it is today. From the first Native Americans who crossed the Bering Strait to the pilgrims, to those who just crossed the border yesterday, thank you for making this country what it is today. In the words of the statue of liberty,

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Failure of Transitional Bilingual Programs

One of the biggest failures of bilingual education is that it is touted as merely a method of teaching English to language minority students. Unfortunately, the truth is that the majority of bilingual programs in California do exactly that. Their goal is to transition language minority students into English only classrooms. Such transitional bilingual classrooms use Spanish exclusively for the majority of the school day with only one half to one hour of English language instruction in the early years. They eventually transfer students into English only classrooms by third or fourth grade. While the structure of such programs is not at fault the goal of transitioning students into English only classrooms prevents students from attaining true bilingualism and reaping all of the advantages that come with it.

The first major problem with transitional bilingual programs is that they do not allow students to attain full literacy in their native language. To be fully bilingual and functional in both languages one must become fully literate. We would certainly not consider an English-speaking student to be fully literate by third or fourth grade. However, that is precisely when students in such programs stop receiving formal language arts instruction in their native language. Extensive amounts of research have proven that the benefits of being bilingual are long term and become most pronounced, especially on test scores, in higher grades. Students who have had the opportunity to become completely bilingual and biliterate consistently outperform their monolingual peers on standardized tests. Transitional bilingual programs do not allow students to gain such benefits as they stop instruction in their native language at such an early age.

Another major problem with transitional bilingual programs is that they isolate language minority students. Language minority students are placed in classes with other students who speak their same language and who are also considered limited English proficient. Such students do not have the opportunity to interact with their English-speaking peers nor do they have access to the cross-cultural experiences that are vital for learning to live in a multicultural society. Transitional bilingual programs basically segregate non-English speaking students from English-speaking students and thus deny students access to the benefits of being among students that might come from other ethnic and language backgrounds.

Lastly, transitional bilingual programs are designed only for language minority students and are not usually open to families of other language backgrounds. This prohibits other families from becoming active participants and supporters of bilingual programs. Such programs prevent more students from being able to receive the cognitive and social benefits of becoming bilingual and create an environment in which bilingual education is seen as remedial education. Students in such programs are seen as having the unfortunate fate of not being able to speak English instead of being praised and admired for the amazing skills they have acquired in developing two languages at the same time.

In conclusion, transitional bilingual programs have given a bad name to bilingual education. This is also perhaps one of the causes of the passage of proposition 227 in California which dismantled the majority of the state's bilingual programs. Hopefully, such programs will phase out and be replaced with dual-immersion bilingual programs which are more inclusive and aim to teach the minority language to students of a variety of language backgrounds.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Welcome to Bilingual Talk

Bilingual Talk is a place for teachers, students, parents and researches to work together to confront some of the greatest challenges facing bilingual education and bilingual living in the United States and beyond. Bilingual Talk values bilingualism and diversity. It is clear that all children deserve the opportunity to learn to speak more than one language. The advantages to being bilingual are extensive. Research has shown that bilingual students benefit from enhanced cognitive brain functions, cognitive flexibility, problem solving skills, academic achievement, and creativity. In addition, bilingual children also gain increased awareness of cross-cultural issues, a better understanding of their native language and greater job opportunities.

Research has also shown that true bilingualism is developed in childhood before the onset of adolescence when our language learning capacity begins to slow down. Children's brains are wired for learning languages and they can recall words after hearing them just a few times. Children are less inhibited from trying out new words and are less frustrated when they hear words they don't understand. The majority of schools in the United States do not begin to offer a second language until Middle School. This is precisely when the task of learning a new language has already become more difficult. On the other hand, young children have been shown to learn three, four and even five languages simultaneously. They are basically little language learning machines.

Given the extensive advantages of being bilingual and what we know about the optimal time to become so, why are there so few bilingual programs and bilingual schools in the United States? Why aren't more parents demanding that their children be given the opportunity to benefit from a bilingual education? What is really stopping us from offering this tremendous advantage to more children in our country?

Bilingual Talk hopes that you will join us in our search to find the answers to these and other questions. We hope this site will be a place to discuss the most important issues on bilingualism; education, politics, research and living. We invite you to post your concerns and questions and do hereby open this forum for all.