Still learning to talk but muy bueno at other languages

12th June 2015 at 01:00
How Texan schools are creating bilingual three-year-olds

It is almost 3.30pm on a typically sticky Friday afternoon in Texas. There is an end-of-the-week feeling in the air, but the three- and four-year-olds at this Austin infant school have one more class to go.

"Hola, buenas tardes," their teacher says, counting "uno, dos, tres" as they filter into the room. In the background, a singer wails "baila conmigo" - Spanish for "dance with me".

Although English is the usual language of instruction at St George's Episcopal School, this weekly Spanish class aims to bring children up to scratch in Texas' unofficial but increasingly important second language.

For years the aim of bilingual education in places such as Texas was to ensure that children who spoke another language at home reached a good level of English. But as the face of the US changes, English-speaking parents are keen to get their children educated in Spanish so that they can keep up with their bilingual peers.

Laura Gonzalez-de Leon, teacher of the Spanish immersion class at St George's, says the best time to start is "as early as you can".

"Many parents wonder why the schools are not teaching [the children] Spanish when we are so close to Mexico," she adds.

With the Texan population now almost two-fifths Latino, Spanish is the lingua franca in many parts of this southern border region. In supermarkets you often hear more Mexican accents than Texan. Spanish is everywhere - and parents are increasingly realising that their children will have more opportunities if they can speak it.

`Competitive advantage'

"When I first came here, I thought a large proportion of the families coming to the school would be Hispanic, but we mostly have Caucasian, English-speaking families - I'd say 70-75 per cent," says Mara Isabel Len, headteacher of the privately run Magellan International School in Austin, which has a dual-language programme for children from the age of 3.

When she arrived in 2009, the school had just 45 students. Today, it has more than 450. "These parents really want their children to become bilingual in English and Spanish," she says. "It's now about competitive advantage. Having a second language - having Spanish - is a necessity now."

Dr Deborah Palmer, an expert on bilingual education at the University of Texas at Austin, says that about 60 of Austin's 80 elementary schools now offer some form of bilingual schooling. In the 1980s, the programmes were largely seen as transitional and "mainly interested in using the primary language as a tool for students to acquire and shift over to English within a few years", Dr Palmer says. But today they have a wider goal: bilingualism.

"These kind of dual-language programmes are beginning all over the state in increasing numbers and include a number of children who are English speakers," she adds.

One of the architects of the push for bilingual education in Texas has been Dr Leo Gmez, now a retired professor and consultant, whose bilingual education model is used by more than 600 schools across the US.

"When I was in elementary school, 40 years or so ago, there was no bilingual education going on," he says. "The position of the state and federal governments was that all kids should be communicating in English only. There were federal laws mandating English-only instruction into the mid-1960s."

But as evidence mounted that Spanish-speaking children were falling behind under the English-only policy, border regions such as Texas and New Mexico began to provide nativelanguage instruction as the children learned English. That led to big improvements in the drop-out rate for Latino pupils.

Look who's talking

Texas now tells school districts that if they have 20 or more students at the same grade level who speak the same language (other than English), they must by law provide those children with some form of bilingual education.

This has had a huge impact. According to the Texas Education Agency, of the 5 million children currently enrolled in Texan state schools, more half a million are registered for bilingual classes. A further 400,000 are taking supplementary English courses to complement the language they speak at home, and nearly a million (974,000) are currently enrolled on a Spanish course.

"When kids are educated in two languages, where they truly reach that level of biliteracy, these kids develop what we call cognitive advantages," Dr Gmez says. "As they continue in school, the data shows - especially by middle school - they are beginning to outperform their counterparts who were educated in English only."

Mara Isabel Len says that by the 2nd grade - when pupils are aged 7 or 8 - monolingual children perform better on spelling tests. But by the time children reach the 6th grade (aged 11-12), she says, the bilingual students in her school are performing better than their peers.

"They have access to a lot more connections in their brain, access to Latin routes in both languages; they can interpret better," she says.

Around her, children shout to their friends in English, Spanish or "Spanglish" - a mixture of the two.

`After puberty, we fall off the map'

In her TED talk on bilingualism and babies, Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, says that when it comes to acquiring a second language, "babies and children are geniuses until they turn 7, and then there's a systemic decline".

"After puberty," she continues - the age when many children first take up language learning at schools - "we fall off the map."

Realising this, many parents in Texas are choosing to put children who can barely count into their first Spanish lessons.

"They can learn a language so effectively at that age, before the crucial period of language development," says Kathy Cloyd, whose two children are studying at the Magellan International School. "We live in Texas so they are learning Spanish - I don't know it very well but I wish I did. If I can give them this while they are learning English, it's a no-brainer."

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