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In Defense of Bilingual Education
Why is it so important?

Virginia Collier has done a great deal of research on language acquisition on school-aged children and teenagers. The issue is more complicated than just "younger students learn a second language faster." She identifies four components which interact to determine the rate at which a student learns a second language. Language development in the first language, academic development, cognitive development, and sociocultural processes all have an effect on language learning. I can't do justice to her findings here, but a paper of hers is available at

It is tempting to say that young children learn a language quickly, but that may be an erroneous assumption. A five-year-old child may quickly pick up a command of basic conversation (Cummins' BICS), and at this point it may appear that the student has mastered the second language. However, the academic register (CALPS) of language is far slower in developing, and without a solid mastery of this level of language which allows a student to communicate in a context-reduced situation, the student's academic preformance will begin to decline as their classwork becomes more abstract.

Collier says:

"In our examination of large data sets across many different research sites, we have found that the most significant student background variable is the amount of formal schooling students have received in their first language. Across all program treatments, we have found that non-native speakers being schooled in a second language for part or all of the school day typically do reasonably well in the early years of schooling (kindergarten through second or third grade). But from fourth grade on through middle school and high school, when the academic and cognitive demands of the curriculum increase rapidly with each succeeding year, students with little or no academic and cognitive development in their first language do less and less well as they move into the upper grades. "

Consider this graph, also by Collier and Wayne Thomas. It compares program models for LEP students over the twelve year span of their education. You'll notice that until about the fourth grade, students in ESL programs make the most rapid progress, albeit only slightly. Around the fourth year, however, these students show a plateauing, then a drop in their achievement, while students in the programs which continue to develop both languages continue toadvance. Why? In fourth and fifth grade, schoolwork shifts from concrete, context-embedded tasks to more abstract "bookwork." You may have heard of the transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." This might be more accurately stated to include all four language modalities as "learning language" to "using language to learn." Students who functioned well in the earlier grades often find themselves without the linguistic tools necessary to continue to succeed in the higher grades. Students in ESL and transitional bilingual classes are often "exited" around the fourth grade, depending on the program, and no longer recieve support. In contrast, "maintenance" programs, which attempt to continue language development in both languages, see their students _surpass_ their monolingual counterparts around seventh grade. This demonstrates the effectiveness of these developmental programs (which are not solely for "LEP" students, BTW), and it suggests the positive that a solid mastery of two or more languages has on cognitive development and academic achievement.

I guess, in a nutshell, I'd say that it is easy to oversimplify the situation of a second-language learner by saying that simple immersion in the language environment will allow them to learn all they need to know, and more quickly. Language development is a serious business for all children. It determines what they'll be able to achieve in their academic careers, and so it is crucial to appreciate the true complexity of a student's linguistic needs.

There are bilingual programs which fail their students. Likewise, there are reading, math, special education and physical education programs which also fail their students. Before scrapping an entire educational philosophy, we should look at programs which succeed.

This article is available online at

Permission granted to educators to reproduce and distribute this document, provided no alterations are made to the content, and authorship is properly attributed. Any other use requires written permission of the author.
Copyright 1999 by Julianne Hammink.