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How Even Smart US Kids Are Way Behind

Photograph by Twenty20

American education doesn't prioritize learning another language, and it's the to detriment of U.S. kids, particularly when comparing them to their international peers.

It's not as if there is no interest: school districts across the country that have tried dual immersion programs can barely keep up with demand. In DI schools, students (often as young as Kindergarten) spend either all or part of a day hearing, speaking, read and writing in a language other than English. By the time they're ready for middle school, they're basically fluent and literate in two languages.

So why aren't there more of these programs? Districts claim they can't keep up with the interest, but I'd argue they're missing the resources that are right in front of them.

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Growing up in Philadelphia, I was surrounded by kids with Puerto Ricans and Korean parents. I picked up words here and there, but since the same kids who could teach me through conversation were being assimilated into the U.S. public school system, they were encouraged to speak English and leave all other languages at home. From an early age, I was fascinated, though. I wanted to be bilingual like my friends, but the opportunity to formalize the learning never came up. By the time I figured out I could learn a language on my own, it was a bit late.

Now that I'm a mom, I look at my kids and wonder if they will be left behind as a single-language student as well. We live in a large Latino community in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. Although my son is in a Spanish language class one afternoon a week, it is definitely not enough. He needs to be immersed, but our school district only has one dual-language program for the entire county. Other parents are thinking just like me, so there are not enough open spots and we're being left out.

Children who need to learn English are in the program, and children who want to learn Spanish are there as well. That's what dual-language programs are all about.

The New York Times recently ran an article that said New York City has about 180 dual-language programs. The piece said that 9 percent of Utah's public elementary students are in dual-language programs. In Portland, the dual-language student population is 10 percent, with 20 percent of Kindergarteners participating. Delaware and North Carolina are working to expand their own dual-immersion offerings in public schools.

Education leaders and politicians in places like Delaware understand the benefits of bilingualism for children. Not only is it helping non-native speakers become more proficient in English, but it is building an American workforce that is attractive to international companies looking to set up in the U.S.

It's well known in the bilingual learning communities that some studies show students may not perform as well as their counterparts at non-bilingual schools right away. Jennifer Steele, an associate professor at American University's School of Education, told the Times "performance increases for both native English speakers and English-language learners in some grades and certain subjects once they reached late elementary school."

Not all dual-language programs are created equally, and it really does depend on how they are run. But there is hope for the future at least.

I want him to learn now while his brain is excited and like a little sponge taking it all in before he turns into a sulky teenager.

Montgomery County Maryland's one dual-language program has been going strong for more than seven years now, and the waitlist to get in is well over 250 students. Children from all over the county can lottery in. No parent can pay their way in since this is a public school, which levels out the playing field a bit more. Children who need to learn English are in the program, and children who want to learn Spanish are there as well. That's what dual-language programs are all about.

Edcentral.org explains that the "two-way immersion programs" integrate English learners in classrooms with their native English-speaking peers. Students with varying linguistic backgrounds learn alongside peers who can model the language they are trying to learn—whether that's Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese or English.

What's even more unique about the Montgomery County school is that half the school takes no part in this dual-language program, which as a parent is frustrating. Why not make the entire school dual-language if the program has been working for so long? Why not give this same opportunity to even more children?

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As parents across America sit and wait for the education system to catch up to that of the rest of the world, many will do what they can to at least expose their children to other languages: through after-school programs, tutoring and even playdates. I love that my son has friends with whom he can practice his small amount of Spanish. His interest in language learning has also encouraged me to take up my own studies and practice with him.

I can't wait around for high school, when language classes are required. I want him to learn now while his brain is excited and like a little sponge taking it all in before he turns into a sulky teenager. Hopefully the school district will catch up sooner rather than later so I can get a little help.

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