English immersion programs became popular with legislators and voters in the early 2000s, based on their concerns about national identity and the role of immigration in the country. Some states went even further, proclaiming English as their official language.
What has changed
Updated research, demographic shifts, and the needs of the business community have begun to convince states and districts that a bilingual approach—helping ELLs learn content in both English and their language of origin in a cohort of students with similar skills—is more beneficial for these students in the long run.
California legislators recently introduced a bill that repeals Proposition 227, a ballot initiative that limited bilingual education statewide and was approved by voters in 1998. If it passes, voters will consider the measure on the 2016 ballot.
Other states, including New York, Illinois, Texas, and California have approved seals of biliteracy for high school diplomas, denoting students who are fluent in more than one language.
The marketability of bilinguals
In the 21st century economy, the benefits of multilingualism for students are much greater than immersion in English alone can provide. Surveys of business leaders, in California and elsewhere, show that hiring managers would prefer bilingual candidates over monolingual applicants. Many people work toward language acquisition in an effort to further their careers—whereas bilingual students would have a head start in the market.
In a country with nearly 10 million English-learning students, and with that number expected to grow, it might come down to how best to efficiently educate these students so that they meet their goals and the standards set for them. Blanket proclamations for or against bilingual education limits the abilities of communities and school districts to decide what is best for their student populations and the capabilities of their teachers.
Instead of thinking of ELLs as students having an uphill slope toward success in American classrooms, they should be encouraged to realize their bilingual potential on their way to becoming successful in society at large. We have the tools and strategies to make that a reality. All we need is the will, which is continuing to grow.