FAQs for Parents

of Bilingual Students

Question Categories

Here are some of the most common questions we get from parents regarding Language Immersion Education.

All language questions here are being answered by Michele Goldin, PhD in Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition. Michelle is currently an Assistant Professor at Touro University Graduate School of Education.

Will my child’s English reading/speaking/writing/comprehension suffer?

No! On the contrary, study after study shows that children in immersion education score higher than their monolingual peers on standardized assessments of English literacy and often also in math and science (Lindholm-Leary & Block, 2010; Marian et al., 2013; Steele et al., 2017; Acosta et al, 2019). This may be due to the fact that literacy skills in one language support and boost literacy skills in the other. Some research suggests that because of this transfer of skills, bilingual children experience an advantage in their dominant language, known as bootstrapping effects (Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy, 1996; Goldin, 2021).

What if my child is older (Kinder or up) and hasn’t had exposure to the language before? Will they still succeed?

Yes, most immersion schools in the United States are K-5 elementary schools, so the majority of students in these programs do not begin exposure to the target language until kindergarten and show strong academic achievement (ARC, 2021). Studies show that by the end of 5th grade, immersion students perform at intermediate levels or higher in the target language on Standards-Based Measurement of Proficiency assessments in listening, reading, writing, and speaking (Burkhauser et al., 2016; Watzinger-Tharp et al., 2018, 2021). For comparison, students who begin taking a second language as an elective in middle school tend to score at about the novice level on these types of assessments by the end of middle school.

What are the benefits of immersion to brain development in children?

Humans have the incredible capacity to acquire multiple languages. Our brains are designed to be bilingual and many studies have shown cognitive advantages for bilingual children in immersion programs (Barbu et al., 2019; Garraffa et al., 2020; Nicolay & Poncelet, 2013, 2015). Some of these advantages include cognitive flexibility, stronger executive functioning, superior attentional control, improved perspective taking, better grammatical skills, and greater empathy towards others. These advantages can be seen in as little as just one year of immersion education.

What if I’m not speaking the language with the child at home? Will they retain the
language

Yes, they will! Children in immersion education receive 5-6 hours of target language input at school every day and may also receive homework to complete at home in the evenings. In a study of Spanish immersion public schools in Portland, Oregon, Burkhauser et al. (2016) showed that after four years of immersion learning (grades K–3), fourth-grade students whose parents did not speak the target language at home scored similarly in reading and speaking to their immersion peers whose home language was Spanish.

View References

References:
Acosta, J., Williams, J., III, and Hunt, B. (2019). Dual language program models and English language learners: An analysis of the literacy results from a 50/50 and a 90/10 model in two California schools. Journal of Educational Issues, 5(2).

American Councils Research Center (ARC). (2021). 2021 Canvass of Dual Language and Immersion (DLI) Programs in US Public Schools. Retrieved on April 20, 2022.

Burkhauser, S., Steele, J., Li, J., Slater, R., Bacon, M., and Miller, T. (2016). Partner-language learning trajectories in dual-language immersion: Evidence from an urban district. Foreign Language Annals 49(3), 415-433.

Collier, V. and W. Thomas. (2004). The astounding effectiveness of dual language education for all.” NABE Journal of Research and Practice 2 (1): 1–20.

Barbu, C., Gonzalez, A., Gillet, S., and Poncelet, M. (2019). Cognitive advantage in children enrolled in a second-language immersion elementary school program for one year. Psychologica Belgica, 59(1), 416–435.

Lindholm-Leary, K. L., and Howard, E. R. (2008). Language development and academic achievement in two-way immersion programs. In T. W. Fortune & D. J. Tedick (Eds.), Pathways to Multilingualism (pp. 177–200). Multilingual Matters.

Lindholm-Leary, K., and N. Block. (2010). Achievement in predominantly low SES/Hispanic dual language schools.” International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 13 (1), 43–60.

Garraffa, M., Obregon, M., O’Rourke, B., and Sorace, A. (2020). Language and cognition in Gaelic-English young adult bilingual speakers: A positive effect of school immersion program on attentional and grammatical skills. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 570-587.

Gawlitzek-Maiwald, I., and R. Tracy. (1996). Bilingual bootstrapping. Linguistics 34 (5), 901–926.

Goldin, M. (2021). Language activation in dual language schools: the development of subject-verb agreement in the English and Spanish of heritage speaker children. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.

Marian, V., Shook, A., & Schroeder, S. R. (2013). Bilingual two-way immersion programs benefit academic achievement. Bilingual Research Journal, 36(2), 167–186.

Nicolay, A.-C., & Poncelet, M. (2013). Cognitive advantage in children enrolled in a second-language immersion elementary school program for three years. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16(3), 597–607.

Nicolay, A.-C., & Poncelet, M. (2015). Cognitive benefits in children enrolled in an early bilingual immersion school: A follow up study. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 18(4), 789–795.

Steele, J. L., Slater, R. O., Zamarro, G., Miller, T., Li, J., Burkhauser, S., and Bacon, M. (2017). Effects of dual-language immersion programs on student achievement: Evidence from lottery data. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1).

Watzinger-Tharp, J., Rubio, F. and Tharp, D. (2018). Linguistic performance of dual language immersion students. Foreign Language Annals 51(3), 575-595.

Watzinger-Tharp, J., Tharp, D. and Rubio, F. (2021). Sustaining dual language immersion: Partner language outcomes in a statewide program. The Modern Language Journal 105(1), 194-217.

All language questions here are being answered by Michele Goldin, PhD in Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition. Michelle is currently an Assistant Professor at Touro University Graduate School of Education.

More than half the world’s population is bilingual, but here in the United States only about 25% of Americans are bilingual. It would seem we need to catch up! Despite concerns and longstanding myths held in the U.S., research continues to show that bilingualism and bilingual education confer young children with a range of cognitive, social-emotional, and academic benefits. Here we bust some common myths:

Myth: Bilingual children get confused between their two languages.

Fact: Studies show that from the onset of bilingualism, children have separate linguistic systems (pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar) for each of their languages. Even from a very early age, they know which words and which pronunciation to use, depending on the context and other speakers. They may cross over between their languages and mix them even within the same sentence, but there is no evidence that bilingual children are ever confused. This is called codeswitching (a complex linguistic phenomenon that requires knowledge of two sets of vocabulary and grammatical rules) and is a normal part of the process of bilingual development. Rather than the child being confused, the ability to codeswitch is evidence of how much knowledge the child has of each of their linguistic systems. Bilingual adults in bilingual contexts do it all the time! (Bullock and Toribio, 2009; Giancaspro, 2017; Grosjean, 1998).

Myth: Bilingual education will cause academic delays.

Fact: Research shows us that bilingualism is positively correlated with stronger academic performance. Children in bilingual immersion education programs in the United States score higher than their monolingual peers on standardized assessments of English literacy (reading and writing) and often also in math and science. Bilingual students are likely to pursue higher education and become global citizens. Additionally, students in bilingual education show a range of cognitive and social-emotional advantages including cognitive flexibility, stronger executive functioning, superior attentional control, improved perspective taking, better grammatical skills, and greater empathy towards others. In the long term, knowing more than one language helps protect the brain against cognitive decline and age-related dementia. All these benefits of bilingual education are known as the “bilingual advantage” (Collier and Thomas, 2004; Bialystok, Craik & Luk, 2012; Nicolay & Poncelet, 2013, 2015; Rodríguez, Carrasquillo, and Lee, 2014).

Myth: My child needs to be equally fluent in both languages in order to be truly bilingual.

Fact: Being bilingual is broadly defined as knowing two languages, so bilingualism occurs on a fluctuating continuum. Bilingual speakers will always have one language in which they feel more dominant, which can change throughout the lifespan, depending on how often each language is used, in what contexts, with whom and for what purposes. It is normal for bilingual speakers to be more proficient in one of their languages than in the other. Bilingual education provides children with the opportunity for more balanced bilingualism because they learn literacy skills (reading and writing) in two languages and can have meaningful academic interactions with native speakers in both languages (Grosjean, 1998; Potowski, 2007a, 2007b).

View References

Bialystok, E., Craik, F., Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 16(4), 240-250.

Bullock, B. E., & Toribio, A. J. (Eds.). (2009). The Cambridge handbook of linguistic code-switching. Cambridge University Press.

Collier, V. and W. Thomas. (2004). The astounding effectiveness of dual language education for all.” NABE Journal of Research and Practice 2 (1): 1–20.

Giancaspro, D. (2015). Code-switching at the auxiliary-VP boundary: A comparison of heritage speakers and L2 learners. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism 5(3), 379 – 407.

Grosjean, F. (1998). Studying bilinguals: Methodological and conceptual issues. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 1: 131–49.

Nicolay, A.-C., & Poncelet, M. (2013). Cognitive advantage in children enrolled in a second-language immersion elementary school program for three years. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16(3), 597–607.

Nicolay, A.-C., & Poncelet, M. (2015). Cognitive benefits in children enrolled in an early bilingual immersion school: A follow up study. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 18(4), 789–795.

Potowski, K. (2007a). Language and Identity in a Dual Immersion School. Clevedon, U.K: Multilingual Matters.

Potowski, K. (2007b). Characteristics of the Spanish grammar and sociolinguistic proficiency of dual immersion graduates. Spanish in Context 4: 187–216.

Rodríguez, D., Carrasquillo, A., and Lee, K.S. (2014). The Bilingual Advantage: Promoting Academic Development, Biliteracy, and Native Language in the Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.