It is a given in a free society that education is a vital ingredient in any recipe for personal development and individual success.
And language is the primary medium through which a good education is delivered.
In an increasingly multicultural America, the languages and the programs used in the education process are becoming as diverse as the students and teachers themselves.
Among the most intriguing — and successful — approaches to learning are the two-way, dual-language programs emerging throughout the United States.
Don’t be put off by the “two-way, dual-language” label. It’s easy to understand, particularly as practiced by someone like Josie Tinajero.
Tinajero is a professor of bilingual education and associate dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas El Paso. She is also an author, speaker and collaborative partner with secondary school districts in the El Paso area.
“Two-way, dual-language programs serve children who are learning English as a second language,” Tinajero says, “and are also open to other children who speak English fluently but also want an opportunity to learn another language in addition to English.”
Traditional English immersion programs have taught millions of immigrants and their children to read, write and speak English.
However, proponents of bilingual education say that young students’ natural ability to learn in their first languages can wither on the vine while they’re being immersed in English-only learning.
In today’s education vernacular, students lacking basic English skills are described as “Limited English Proficient” or LEP children. They are a large, growing and culturally significant group.
A national language clearinghouse recently estimated that in 1999-2000 there were nearly 3.7 million LEP students in the United States, speaking more than 400 languages other than English.
By far, the largest group was the 2.8 million Spanish-speaking students who comprised nearly 77 percent of all LEP children, followed by Vietnamese at 2.3 percent (88,365) and Hmong at 2.2 percent (81,119).
Tinajero believes in bilingual learning for the nation’s LEP children – and for English-speaking students as well.
“My efforts have focused on expanding and enhancing two-way dual education, which provides all children with the opportunity to become two-way language proficient,” Tinajero explains. “LEP students don’t lose their native language. It is developed and maintained, and English-speaking children have an opportunity to learn a second language.”
This approach makes sense for several reasons, one being the United States’ increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic makeup — especially the phenomenal, coast-to-coast surge in Hispanic population numbers.
Because of this, the ability to communicate fluently in more than one language is already a huge plus in the job market, in the world of commerce and in many regular daily activities.
Equally important, according to Jaime Zapata, media and public affairs director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, is that, “A child who has been through a bilingual program tends to do much, much better in math, history, science and other academic subjects.”
Proponents say current performance data indicate that students trained in two-way, dual-language programs consistently do better than their classroom peers.
Tinajero says researchers at George Mason University have shown that “children in two-way, dual-language programs academically outperform children in all other programs, including mainstream English programs.”
She says testing data show similarly positive results in the El Paso area, where dual-language students have demonstrated “a competitive edge, a cognitive edge over all others.”
“In Texas,” she adds, “a state-mandated test shows that children in two-way, dual-language programs outperform kids in regular programs in tests given in both English and Spanish.”
Because of this, Tinajero believes every child in Texas should have the opportunity to become bilingual.
It’s hard to argue with her dream.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Josie Tinajero was herself an LEP child growing up in El Paso, struggling to learn in local classrooms.
“I went to school not speaking any English, but I knew a lot of things in my native language,” she says. “I am bilingual because my parents insisted that I speak Spanish at home and learn English at school.”
By the way, the self-described one-time LEP child is now Dr. Josefina Villamil Tinajero.
But, please, she is quick to add, just call her Josie.
George Benge, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, writes a monthly commentary on diversity issues for Gannett News Service. He can be reached at Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107 or via e-mail at features(AT)gns.gannett.com