The Providence superintendent says she strongly favors instruction that allows students to progress academically in two languages and gain an appreciation of another culture.

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PROVIDENCE – For most English-language learners, bilingual education is a one-way bridge that takes them from one side, where their native language is spoken, to the other, where another language is learned at the expense of the first.

But Providence Schools Supt. Diana Lam was fortunate. She had a truly bilingual education in Peru, where she was raised. She learned to read, write and think in both Spanish and English from native speakers of both languages. She studied science and Peruvian history in Spanish and math in English.

“We did not travel back and forth across a bridge,” Lam told 200 educators at Brown University yesterday. “We camped out and made a home there, internalizing two languages so we could own them for the rest of our lives. The bridge was sturdy enough . . . to span and celebrate the roots of two cultures and two languages.”

Lam was the keynote speaker at the Fourth Annual Claiborne Pell Educational Policy Seminar, sponsored by the Northeast Regional Educational Lab at Brown. This year’s seminar focused on how educators can improve the way “minority language speakers” learn English and other crucial subject areas such as math and science.

Bilingual education will never make great gains, Lam said, unless educators and the public view the ability to speak more than one language as an asset, not a deficit.

Lam, who turned around the failing San Antonio schools when she was superintendent, strongly urged schools to require competency in two languages. Texas, for example, requires that all students study languages as a graduation requirement, and foreign language instruction begins as early as first or second grade.

Lam also spoke out strongly in favor of two-way bilingual education, in which students are taught in English and another language in a classroom that is typically divided into native speakers of English and native speakers of a second language.

Two-way programs allow students to progress academically in both languages and gain an appreciation of another culture, Lam said.

A study published recently by the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education found that bilingual students in two-way programs learned English 60 percent faster than students in traditional bilingual classes.

Lam said bilingual education “has been shortchanged in two ways.” Many bilingual teachers initially teach under a waiver because they are not yet fluent in two languages or because they haven’t finished their training.

“Bilingual teachers have to be held to the same quality of teacher standards that other teachers are held to,” Lam said. “Being bilingual does not make us privy to any special wisdom or exemption.”

The common practice of requiring all bilingual teachers to teach in both languages, regardless of their native language or their second language skills, should also be scrutinized. Lam noted that she learned English composition from a native speaker of English, and was taught Spanish composition from someone who grew up speaking Spanish.

Lam ended on an upbeat note, saying that she is now encouraged that educators have found a new route by which to carry bilingualism into the new century:

“It is a two-way street, and yet, both ways lead to the same destination a place where two languages are used without apology and where becoming proficient in both is considered a significant intellectual and cultural achievement. Now is the time to build our new bridge.”

The other three panelists include Norman M. Wechsler, superintendent of the Bronx High Schools; Donna Christian, president of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.; and Carlos M. Rodriguez, research scientist at the American Institutes for Research, also in Washington, D.C. National Public Radio’s Christopher Lydon led the audience in a meeting-style discussion after the panelists spoke.

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