What is Dual Language? What parents need to know



The explosion of Dual Language programs across the country is astounding. Today, more than 800 school districts across the country are reported to have some type of Dual Language program across the US and every day that number is growing.

About Dual Language

What is a Dual Language program?

To say it simply, a Dual Language program is a language immersion educational program in which students learn two languages simultaneously with the exact same content. The goal of Dual Language programs is acquire complete fluency and literacy in both languages. These programs typically, though not always, have a blend of native speakers from each of the two languages in the same classroom.

For example, third grade Dual Language students, half of whom are native English speakers and half of whom are native Spanish speakers, spend one day learning about fractions in English and the next day continue the lesson on fractions in Spanish, then continue the following day in English. There are various structures to Dual Language programs, which we will cover below, but this is a good example of how one may work.

For a more formal and technical definition, let's look to the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), a nonprofit organization promoting access, equity and mutual understanding for linguistically and culturally diverse people around the world.

They define Dual Language as follows:

"We consider dual language to be an umbrella term that includes foreign language immersion for native English speakers, developmental bilingual programs for native speakers of the partner language, two-way immersion programs that combine these two populations, and heritage language programs."

Dual Language programs are an evolution of programs made especially for students learning English for the first time. Like the ESL (English as a Second Language) programs that have been a popular way of assimilating English learners. Those programs had the unfortunate consequence of reducing strength in the original language. Over the years, it has been discovered that taking an additive approach -- learning both languages together -- was actually a more effective way to learn both languages.

What is dual language vs. two-way immersion?

Many people use the term dual language to refer to programs that have a balance of native English speakers and native speakers of the partner language. This model is also called two-way immersion or two-way bilingual immersion. One-way immersion refers to programs where all the students are native speakers of the same language (e.g. all native English speakers). These programs are not as popular, although sometimes necessary because of the student make up in the school. Some believe this model is not as preferred because you lose the benefit of interaction among the native speakers.

What is language immersion?

Language immersion is a method of learning that exposes the student to only the target language (in our case that would be Spanish), so that the teaching and the learning is happening in the target language. This method is thought to be more effective as the student in hearing the language in context.

What are the benefits of a Dual Language program?

There are so many!

  • Bilingualism (speaking two languages)

  • Biculturalism (thinking, feeling and living in two cultures)

  • Biliteracy (reading & writing in two languages)

  • Access to native language speakers that enrich language learning

  • Native level fluency in another language - sounding like a native speaker, imaging that!

  • Cultural exposure and understanding

  • Improve cognitive development

  • Improved brain function

  • Possibly ward off Alzheimer's

  • And so much more!!

What are the potential challenges of Dual Language programs?

Unfortunately, there are also some things to watch about Dual programs....

  • Family commitment - to be truly successful it requires more support than just showing up at school. This is especially true if no one else in the household speaks Spanish. Homework gets tough as the years progress, kids can often reject the process in the early stages. It's a learning process for all!

  • If child has any educational or learning challenges, dual language programs could exacerbate as it demands more of them than a regular school program.

  • Teacher shortages put more pressure on teachers and administration. This could mean extra large classes and much more "teaching to the middle". If you have a child that needs more attention -- whether they are struggling or gifted -- this could pose a challenge.

  • In comparison to other programs (such as math or sports), Dual Language is still so new that access to parent and family resources are either not available or still very new, making it hard to find support. It's the reason I started this community!

  • Many districts are still "just learning" how to make these programs work. And with continued pressure on standardized tests, it could put your child's education at risk too. In our case, the school district has not developed the program beyond 5th grade despite stating they would go thru high school when we started 6 years ago. With leadership changes and political priorities shifting, it's hard to know what your child will have available in the future.

Despite any challenges we have faced, it really has been blessing for our family. We are glad we've had these years to participate in the program and would happily recommend it to anyone.

Some other helpful things to know

In the last 6 years that we've been on our Dual Language journey, we have learned A LOT. But it has taken time. Here are a few things you might want to know if you're just starting out or even if you are still learning (as we are!):

Native Language vs. Target Language

Native language refers to the dominant language which is typically the first language learned. And the target language is the languague the student is hoping to learn.

English Language Learners (ELLs) vs. Spanish language learners (SLLs) This one is pretty obvious, but important to know that they often have their own individual needs. English language learners have the benefit of English everywhere. This helps speed their learning. But they also have the disadvantage of English being everywhere -- which means sometimes the expectations around them are much higher than are realistic for someone just learning a language.

Spanish language learners have the benefit of a strong community support. English language learners have not historically had this. This means they are able to garner support and resources that can help them progress in their language learning while not losing out on their academic progress. Of course, they have the disadvantage that Spanish is limited to their classroom. This makes Spanish learning a much slower process for them than English learning is for their peers.

Teachers Set Up

Typically (but varies by school), there are two teachers in a Dual Language program: one is the English teacher, and one is the Spanish teacher. The Spanish teacher is a bilingual certified teacher is often has come from a English as a Second Language program. Unfortunately, there is a big shortage of these bilingual teachers and that poses one of the greatest threats for Dual Language programs.

Homework Assignments

Yes, this is usually handed out in both languages. Often homework starts with Native language only assignments (say in Kinder and 1st grade) and progress into the target language. But of course that varies by school, grade and teacher. No matter how they start out, the goal is they are able to complete the same level work in both languages within a matter of time.

The Class Schedule

This definitely depends on the type of program at your school. However, the programs are usually structured to have somewhere between 10% and 90% of the instruction be in the target language. For us, that has meant that 50% of our child's education since Kindergarten has been in Spanish. But other school's do 90% in Spanish, or they start slow and progress up from 10% to 90% over the years.

This was our 11 year old's experience:

Kinder: 50% of day was English, then second half of day was Spanish

1st & 2nd grade: One full day of one language, next day the other language

3rd & 4th grade: One whole week of one language, next week the other language

5th grade: One half day of one language, the other half of the other language (this was mostly done to prepare them for middle school class period and transitioning throughout the day)

What other questions do you have?


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