The Bilingual advantage: Dual languages gives students a competitive edge

Carmen Farina | 8/13/2015, 10:42 a.m.
I grew up speaking Spanish with my parents, who fled their native Spain during its Civil War and settled in ...
Carmen Farina

I grew up speaking Spanish with my parents, who fled their native Spain during its Civil War and settled in Brooklyn. I didn’t know any English when I started kindergarten, and the teacher marked me absent for six weeks because I didn’t understand her mangled pronunciation of my last name. Like many of you, I struggled to be bilingual and bicultural, trying to hold on to my parents’ traditions while finding my footing in their adopted land.

Today, approximately 14 percent of New York City’s public school students—approximately 150,000 boys and girls—are English Language Learners like I was when I started school. I am proud that this fall, the Department of Education will open or expand Dual Language programs across the five boroughs, offering students the opportunity to acquire fluency in two languages and, at the same time, foster their respect and appreciation for multiple cultures.

In Dual Language classes, 50 percent of students are ELLs and 50 percent are English-proficient students. Both groups of students receive instruction in English and a target second language. Among the programs is the city’s first Japanese Dual Language classroom; other programs include Spanish, French, Haitian-Creole and Mandarin.

Last year the Division of English Language Learners and Student Support was created to provide a high-quality education and targeted support to prepare ELLs for college and career readiness. Deputy Chancellor Milady Baez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who, like me, did not know any English when she began school in New York City, is the first to lead the DOE’s robust efforts to support ELLs. Baez has been a champion of ELLs throughout the span of her career in bilingual education.

I dream of a New York City where every child speaks and writes two languages and is a true member of a global citizenry. Dual Language programs make a difference for students and families in our increasingly globalized world. Speaking multiple languages and understanding different cultures is an asset for students, families, schools and our entire city, and they’re critical skills students will need for highly coveted 21st century jobs.

You can help bring a Dual Language program to your school if many parents express interest. We welcome any school community that would like to implement a Dual Language program, and we will continue to offer planning grants every year to expand this program.

Academic research has demonstrated that these programs contribute to great educational gains. A number of studies have shown that students in Dual Language programs academically outperform other students; other studies demonstrate that when students learn to read in their primary languages, they become more fluent in English. One scientist, Ellen Bialystok, has produced almost 40 years of research showing how bilingualism sharpens the mind.

Dual Language programs will strengthen our students’ language skills, teach them about new cultures and welcome parents into classrooms in new ways. As a former ELL, a lifelong educator and an abuela, I am excited and confident that this initiative is a critical step forward that will put more students on the path to college and meaningful careers.

To learn how to apply for these programs, families can call 718-935-3500 or visit one of our family welcome centers at http://on.nyc.gov/1SZrXpH.