Nation, World + Society

Q&A with Patricia Gándara on bilingual education

When teachers do English-only instruction, they effectively erase all a non-English speaking student knows

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Patricia Gándara
Andres Cuervo/UCLA

Patricia Gándara, research professor and codirector of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

In this edited Q&A from “Just News from Center X,” John Rogers, faculty director of Center X, interviews Patricia Gándara about bilingual education. Gándara is research professor and codirector of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. She is also chair of the working group on education for the University of California-Mexico Initiative. In 2011, Gándara was appointed to President Obama’s Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, and in 2015 she received the Distinguished Career Award from the Scholars of Color Committee of the American Educational Research Association.

Let’s begin with some definitions. What are bilingual education programs and what are dual immersion programs?

Bilingual education has grown up over the decades as a program dedicated to English learners. Many people use it as a term that encompasses any kind of program that is focused on helping English learners become English speakers, which includes programs that include no primary language at all, just English. The clearer, better definition of it is a program that uses the primary language to help students become English speakers and in some cases, fully bilingual and bi-literate.

Two-way dual language programs are both for English Learners and English speakers, and can go — and optimally should go — all the way through the student’s education until graduation. The best model, the one that seems to get the best outcomes, actually starts with 90 percent of what we call the target language, which is the native language of half of the students, until it shifts over somewhere in mid-primary school to about half and half. The whole goal of this is strong literacy for all students in at least two languages.

I will add to that that another benefit of this kind of program is that it integrates kids who are English learners and kids who are often times segregated in communities and schools where they don’t have much access to English Learners. It has a benefit beyond the linguistic benefit, which we think is important. Most programs in California focus on Spanish and English, but we do have a lot of other languages represented.

What are some of the other languages, other than Spanish, that are most commonly found in California schools?

The most common ones are Mandarin, Korean and in the Los Angeles area, Armenian.

How does bilingual education support student learning and development?

When children come to school, they come with a language. They’re not “a-lingual.” They actually come with a language, a communication capacity, a vocabulary and with knowledge of the world that is framed in a language that they speak. These are all learning assets the children bring with them to school. When we attempt to do instruction in English-only, when that’s not a language that they speak, we effectively just erase all of that and start at zero.

When we can capitalize on the language that the student already knows and all of the knowledge that was built in that framework, it just speeds up the child’s ability to learn new material. Time is a really, really precious resource, but especially for immigrant children or children who are coming from a different background. They’ve got so much to acquire in such little time that anything that we can do to build on what they already know and what they already have would make better use of that time. The kids who don’t have to start at zero do better over the long run.

Are there certain characteristics of the highest quality bilingual education programs that you would point to as being critical for them to be successful?

I think the very first thing is the instruction needs to be rigorous, and it needs to be provided by a teacher who has a very strong command of the language. We’re not talking about a hugely expensive thing where it’s two teachers instead of one. One of the things that oftentimes gets raised is it’s just too expensive, and that’s just simply not the case.

What’s core to that type of instructional knowledge really needs more research. I think this would be very helpful for us in creating the strongest kinds of programs, which typically have strong teachers, rigorous curriculum, and access to strong speakers of English.

The total instructional model needs to include real interaction with native English speakers, and part of this is modeling. Part of it is motivation, because the biggest motivation for learning to use language, from the time that we are babies, is the necessity and desire to communicate with people that we want to communicate with. You have to have these kids in a situation in which there is a need and a desire to communicate with others in that language that they’re learning.

Why should the public in California care whether young people who start off in our school system become bilingual adults?

We’re really behind most other developed countries. People forget that while the rest of the world is learning English, they’re also learning other languages, and much of what happens in commerce and trade and international relations, and in every day interactions with other people, rests on their primary language.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve had an explosion of research in this area. We have studies now that are gold standard, randomized samples, longitudinal from kindergarten through high school. The studies we now have demonstrate firmly that kids who get access to one of these programs are going to have social, psychological, emotional, cognitive, academic and economic benefits. We also have learned that the students who participate in a good bilingual program perform better in English.

It really puts us at a disadvantage when we can’t communicate with people in their language. In the Western Hemisphere most of the people speak Spanish. To be able to speak in their language is a huge asset. This is not to discount the importance of speaking other languages, like Mandarin for example. Really, if we can finally get to bilingual education, maybe we can [get to] trilingual education as well.

What state and district policies are needed to support the development of bilingual adults and hence, support bilingual education?

We need teacher policy in this state and in this country that focuses on those young people that have this growing asset and really makes it attractive for them to become bilingual teachers. Bi-literacy is something that does appeal to people. They know that there is a great advantage to this, and an awful lot of educated people in the middle class want it for their kids, whether they’re monolingual or not.

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