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Dual Language Programs and the Bilingual Advantage

As a college student, I spent a semester studying abroad in Italy. My embarrassment stumbling over new words will be familiar to many language learners. Whether asking for directions, ordering food, or attending class, I struggled to keep up as I frantically translated my thoughts from English to Italian. One night, after one of those expansive, hours-long Italian dinners with friends, I realized with a start that I wasn’t translating in my head anymore. I was thinking in Italian for the first time, focusing on the conversation instead of grammar and syntax. It’s moments like these that make learning another language so rewarding.

Wouldn’t it be great if learners could experience this at age 8 instead of 18? That’s the kind of experience that dual language programs can provide.

The Goal of Dual Language Programs

Dual language programs seek to establish literacy in both English and another language while fostering academic growth within each. These programs serve dual language learners (DLLs), who according to Head Start are

“children learning two (or more) languages at the same time, as well as those learning a second language while continuing to develop their first (or home) language.”

But dual language programs don’t just promote learning in two languages; they promote learning through two languages. Just as I was able to engage more fully over those bowls of pasta, DLL students can learn more deeply when they forget about the language they are using and focus on content that excites and motivates them.

A Movement on the Rise

Dual language programs are springing up around the country in response to mounting evidence of the advantages of bilingualism and biliteracy. According to the Harvard Education Letter, the number of dual language programs in the U.S. doubled in a decade and now there are more than 2,000 programs (Wilson, 2011). Successful programs have been flourishing in states as diverse as Utah, Oregon, Delaware, North Carolina, Illinois, and New York.

Dual language programs are often thought of as initiatives to close the achievement gap between native English speakers and English-language learners (ELLs). While instruction in both languages certainly does help ELL students achieve English fluency, this represents only part of the power of these programs. That’s because “true” dual language programs benefit native English speakers as well as ELL students. As Roxana Norouzi, Director of Education and Integration Policy at OneAmerica, puts it, “Dual language programs work because bilingual children enter the school system feeling that knowledge of another language is an asset, not a deficit.”


Cooper Dual Language Academy in Chicago, Illinois

Dual Language Programs in Action

animated-dual-language-pie-chartWhat do these programs actually look like in the classroom? They span many grades, ideally continuing through high school. As students learn both languages, they also study math, science, and social studies in both languages (most often English and Spanish). In kindergarten and 1st grade, dual language programs often follow a 90:10 model, with 90% of the curriculum taught in the students’ native language and 10% delivered in English. By grades 2 to 4, dual language programs can evolve into a 50:50 model in which instruction takes place in both languages equally. This model is the most effective, particularly when the class is split evenly between native English and native Spanish speakers (Thomas and Collier, 2012).

Think of the 50:50 model as a linguistic exchange program. By working together and splitting class time between two languages, DLL students help each other learn a new language and discover new and exciting ways to approach diverse material. As the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf said:

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.

By experiencing content in multiple languages, students have a better chance of finding a way of thinking that works for them. This is particularly important for helping ELL students close the achievement gap. Instruction in their native language (alongside English) helps to ensure they fully understand the fundamental concepts they will need to progress. In this way, dual language programs provide a solid foundation for growing a student’s potential.

Looking Ahead

As dual language programs continue to proliferate, we hope that 50:50 learning models open academic doors for more students. The dual language movement should be supported with more and better content resources—content that goes beyond simple translation to support a deeper engagement. Native-language assessments such as PODER (developed jointly by CAL/WIDA) will be crucial to measuring the efficacy of these programs.

In the America of the future, students will need strong literacy skills to succeed. Dual language programs help realize this goal for a greater number of students, while also helping to bring native English speakers and ELL students closer together. Much like my experience at an Italian dinner table, students in these programs will no longer simply be speaking English or speaking Spanish. They’ll be communicating.

Head Start, “OHS Definition of Dual Language Learners,” HHS/ACF/OHS. 2009, Accessed 26 October 2016.

Thomas, Wayne P. and Collier, Virginia P., summarized in Groom, D., & Hanson, R. (2013). Dual Language Education Can Close Achievement Gap. Washington, DC: Joint National Committee for Languages-National Council for Languages and International Studies, Accessed 26 October 2016.

Wilson, David McKay. “Dual Language Programs on the Rise.” Harvard Education Letter, vol. 27, no. 2. March/April 2011, Accessed 26 October 2016.

Further Reading
See the Roxana Norouzi quote at the end of this web page.

See this web page for more on the Benjamin Lee Whorf quote.

See Dual Language Programs Explained, a video from the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

See this video about the Utah Instructional Model and pie charts showing how time is allotted in the model.

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