A Critical Look at Bilingual Education Programs

By | September 7, 2021

Over the last few years I’ve been learning a lot about Japanese/English bilingual educational programs, including those my son or another person I know was part of either recently, or in the past. I now think I have enough information to write an information article about some of the pros and cons of these programs, and give my overall take on whether they are worth it or not.

I am going to refrain from talking about any specific programs, since teachers come and go and curriculum changes, though I should mention that the majority of what I will be talking about came from kindergarten to elementary-level programs in Oregon (some which may no longer exist). Having said that, I write this with the hope that my observations will be generally applicable to bilingual education programs across various regions and languages. I will be focused a little bit more on full-day immersion programs, where learning a second language is a major part of the student’s education, but I will also take into account after

school or weekend tutoring programs.

First I’d like to go into some common advantages and disadvantages I have noticed.

Pros of bilingual education programs

  1. These programs generally have a native speaker of the language in question as the main teacher, and often assistants will be natives as well. One of the biggest advantages of these programs is learning to listen and speak with native-level pronunciation, which is something adults often struggle with when learning a foreign language.
  2. They generally have a focus on cultural traditions, which are important for parents who have a connection to the foreign language in question. Acting out traditional cultural practices or reading classic stories are fun ways to learn culture, though involved performances are generally only done once in a while.
  3. There is often a focus on written language, which is particularly important for languages like Chinese or Japanese where there are a large number of characters that are complex compared to English’s alphabet. Written language is particularly convenient since it can be given as homework and easily graded by the teacher. Having a child do writing practice is something that can be tricky for parents to do on their own so this is a plus.
  4. Children will generally learn enough basic phrases to make simple conversation, or at least be able to understand and answer yes/no questions.
  5. Elementary bilingual education programs give students a running start to formally study a foreign language in middle or high school, and in some cases may enable them to skip a class or two. Similarly, these programs will give students who plan on living in the foreign country in question (i.e. Japan) a head start.

Cons of bilingual education programs

  1. Full day immersions can be quite expensive, and often appear to be marketed towards wealthy parents who want their child to be exposed to a certain culture. (There is nothing wrong with this marketing angle, but the resultant pricing means many families may have a hard time enrolling, and are less likely to continue subsequent years.)
  2. It can be difficult for teachers of these programs to force speaking the foreign language in the classroom at all times, whether that be during the class itself or during recess/break times. As a result, students can end up having a lot of conversations in English.
  3. Having a child in an immersion school doesn’t seem to make it any easier for them to continue using the language at home. It may be partially because of the previous point, but also perhaps because students can associate the language with ‘studying’ or ‘work’ as opposed to having fun.
  4. Even when students speak in the foreign language, since they are generally not native speakers they are likely to make mistakes, and your child may pick these things up. 
  5. Because in some programs parents are not assumed to know any of the foreign language in question, homework assignments are often written in a bilingual form (i.e. Japanese/English) or have both languages intermixed. Assignments may actually involve using English resources (like YouTube videos), a practice that while I admit trains certain skills, does seem quite odd.
  6. Due to time constraints, English language studies (and possibly other areas) can be de-emphasized. If students switch to a monolingual program it may be hard for them to catch up with English and other areas that were deemphasized.
  7. Although students should be able to express themselves to a certain extent, two-way conversation with students speaking a foreign language can be especially tricky to make happen, especially at the elementary school age level. For that reason, students’ conversational ability will generally not be comparable to a native speaker.
  8. It seems that explicit correction of foreign language pronunciation is not done very often in programs for elementary school level. There is a certain logic to this because even native speakers at that age can have pronunciation problems that generally work themselves out before they become adults, but nonetheless I’ve been disappointed by some of the pronunciation of several students who were in such a program for several years.
  9. It seems that if students don’t continue their foreign language study into middle and high school they tend to forget what they learned.

Summary and Final Thoughts

While each child will respond differently to each bilingual education program, overall I have been disappointed with what my son and others have learned from these programs, even those which are considered ‘immersive’.

Despite my overall disappointment in these programs, I think there is still some good value in them for certain types of families. Specifically, for families where neither the mother nor the father speaks the foreign language in question, their child can gain good cultural exposure and also some language basics that will help them later. Even if the child does not continue to study the language after elementary school and forgets most of what they learned, I think the core idea of being open to other cultures will stay with them at some level, and this alone is very valuable. And even if they decide to return to the language in college or after, I think some of the pronunciation skills they learned will benefit them, giving them a better chance for true fluency down the road.

On the other hand, for families where one or both parents speak the foreign language in question, fluently or at least well enough to do basic conversation, I think these sorts of bilingual educational programs are of less value. This is especially the case if the child has been raised to speak and understand that foreign language during their early years, at least with one of the parents. Even though skills like writing can probably be learned easier in a school setting as opposed to at home, many other things like conversation ability and even reading comprehension can be easily done at home, given at least one parent with the ability and time to teach their child daily. 

The problem comes when such a family enrolls their child into a bilingual program and expects them to get a huge increase in fluency, which in my opinion is not likely to happen. Furthermore, parents that don’t know the language in question (perhaps a common scenario) will have a very difficult time judging how much their child has learned.

Another way to look at this is in terms of what is the most effective way for a child to learn a language. The first is, hands down, having that child live in a country where the language in question is spoken daily, for months or ideally years. Second is having them speak that language at home 100% of the time, or at least as much as possible. Then there are things like tutors and bilingual school programs that can teach a student much but not nearly as much as the first two.

However, I would argue putting too much emphasis on trying to get an elementary school-level child fluent in two or more languages is the wrong way to look at things. Rather than fluency, I think the key thing is getting that child interested in the culture and people related to that language, and associating good feelings instead of stressful ones. As a parent (or caregiver), as long as you can do that, the child may eventually decide to study the language on their own. And having self-motivation is the best way to give them the best chance to succeed.

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