Science en Espanol: Learning Language Through Content

The main office of Amistad Dual Language School in Upper Manhattan, like any school, is the hub of daytime activity. But listen closer to the chatter, and you’ll hear students as young as 6 years old mixing English and Spanish with ease.

“Buenos dias, con permiso me puede dar un pase de tardanza?” said one native English-speaking child, asking one of the office secretaries for a late pass to class.

It’s all thanks to the elementary school’s 10-year-old dual language program, a language curriculum that’s changed the way children are learning second languages in more than 100 New York City public schools and hundreds more across the nation.

New York City public school dual language programs such as Amistad’s have grown by a third since 2002, when there were only 65. For these schools, language isn’t just a class, it’s an integral part of their curriculum. The movement has grown nationally, with programs even popping up in states with little immigration, such as Maine and Iowa.

These dual language programs don’t teach memorization of nouns, verbs and tenses. Instead, students learn language by studying science, math and other subjects, helping transform monolingual English and Spanish speakers into bilingual, biliterate and bicultural students.

Hundreds of families enter enrollment lotteries each year to score a rare dual language program seat, but with only 100 programs offered in the city’s more than 1,600 public schools, their chances of attaining a spot for their child are slim. Despite their popularity with parents, the number of dual language programs has not grown as proponents had hoped, due to a lack of specialized teachers, increased instruction time and cost.

“Not everyone thinks bilingualism is important,” said Julie Sugarman, a researcher for the Center of Applied Lingusitics. “People see English as a universal language, and say if everybody speaks English across the world, why should I learn a new language?”

The Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based linguistic think-tank, lists 366 dual language education programs in 29 states. Sugarman estimates there are at least 500 programs across the nation.

The dual language education movement in the United States started as a way to educate Spanish-speaking children and get them comfortable with English. It grew out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a piece of legislation that prohibited discrimination in public facilities, employment and in government.

Following the act’s passage, the nationwide call to educate non-English speaking U.S. residents in public schools led to a period of experimentation and diversification in language education.

Without federal standards laying out how to implement the act, public schools across the country tried out many different transitional language programs. They ranged from English as a second language classes to native language maintenance programs, in which students started in Spanish and moved more and more into English.

“That model, I believe, is the precursor to dual-language programs,” said Miriam Pedraja, the principal of Amistad.

Current dual language programs bring together native speakers of two different languages, divided 50-50. Because students start the programs in kindergarten, they gradually acquire the language through regular classroom interaction. Proponents say the experience encourages students to view each others’ language and culture as something to share, rather than shed.

“It doesn’t take away from it. It actually enhances it,” Pedraja said. “So when the program is done right, it really does a good job.”

In many elementary dual language programs, students spend half of their school day learning subjects in one language, the other half in another. In dual language programs for older students, full days or even consecutive weeks are spent speaking a single language before teachers flip the curriculum to the other language.

“The reason we do that is because we want to make sure all content areas are covered in both languages,” Pedraja said.

Increasingly, these programs are gaining popularity among parents in New York City, who view the programs as a way to give their children personal and cognitive advantages in the future. Some parents at P.S. 173, which runs one of two Mandarin dual language programs in Fresh Meadows, Queens, cite studies that find dual language education makes children smarter. Others said their children are in the programs because it will give them more job opportunities in the future.

Allan Stein attended P.S. 173 himself as a child, long before the influx of Asian immigrants to the neighborhood. He said he was happy that his son, a first grader in the school, is exposed to Chinese culture.

“I was just lucky,” Stein said. “It was my neighborhood school.”

The foreign-born Asian-American population of Queens has grown by 34 percent between 2006 and 2008, to 371,900, according to the Census Bureau. That’s one reason for the dual language program opening at P.S. 173, which put out a survey three years ago asking if families would be interested in a program.

“The survey came back and it stated very clearly this is one of the things they wanted,” said P.S. 173 principal Molly Wang. “So it became a dual language program.”

Elaine Klein, a professor in City University of New York’s graduate program in linguistics, sees a growing movement away from traditional language education model, in which students learn a second language in secondary school classes, rather than acquiring it through the immersive grade-school programs. She said the change is in large part due to teachers recognizing the value of both the social language taught in secondary school classes and the academic language which educators can concentrate on after basic understanding of a second language is accrued.

“The trend definitely is toward the acquisition of academic language,” Klein said. “That means language has to be taught through content.”

This view is supported in the framework of recent national education initiatives such as the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and No Child Left Behind, which call for increased student proficiency in foreign languages.

Most of the dual language programs exist in elementary schools, while few high schools offer the programs. Researchers at the Center for Applied Linguistics say a lack of high level programs could hinder the realization of America’s national education initiatives. In a 2005 paper published by the center, “Attaining High Levels of Proficiency: Challenges for Foreign Education in the United States,” researchers found a need for more post-primary and post-secondary language learning.

Roadblocks lie in the way for broader acceptance of dual language programs like these, including a lack of specialized teachers that speak two languages fluently and a swell in cost to schools, mostly caused by the need to provide all materials on both languages.

“It requires a real investment in time and in resources in even getting the programs started,” Sugarman said. “But there’s a lot of myths. People who haven’t visited dual language programs have no idea. You don’t need to totally relearn concepts.”

Some parents worry that the programs may benefit English speaking students more than the non-native English speakers in the class. Sugarman said that isn’t the case.

“Ideally, it should benefit both equally,” Sugarman said. “If that divide existed at a school it’s indicative of other problems. It’s the canary in the coal mine.”

Teaching in both languages doesn’t mean instructors have to cover less content or repeat it in both languages, educators say. There can be additional costs, however, as schools have to supply classrooms with curriculum materials in two languages.

Pedraja said not having enough properly trained bilingual teachers for dual language programs is a substantial impediment blocking large-scale adoption of the programs. For dual language teaching, she said, teachers must be fluent in a second language. That isn’t something she thinks should be required of teachers as a part of their certification.

“It can’t be where you enforce it on people,” Pedraja said. She’d rather confine it to teachers who are passionate about dual language education, she said. “It’s something you feel really strongly about.”

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