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Commentary: Dual language opportunities need to be expanded in early education

Marysol Perez | November 12, 2018

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My husband and I consider ourselves to be bilingual and biliterate. My husband was born in Honduras and came to the U.S. when he was 8 years old, but still maintained his native language at home. While I was born in California, Spanish was my primary language at home and I was also an English learner. However, I quickly picked up English after I started school and found myself neglecting my native language, only to realize the power of being bilingual when I was in high school after using Spanish to advocate for a peer who was new to our school and America.

As a former dual language teacher and current English Learner Specialist, I always wanted to ensure that our daughter received the gift of language and grew up bilingual. Research shows that that bi- and multilingual people are better at analyzing their surroundings, multitasking, and problem-solving. They also have a larger working memory, including for tasks that do not involve language. However, the importance of being bilingual extends beyond the cognitive and academic benefits. Bilingualism for my family represents the preservation of our culture and allows us to see and appreciate the diverse world that we live in through a different lens.

Given my background in bilingual education, I wanted to make sure that our daughter was completely immersed in the language. First we tried to have a “Spanish only” rule in the house, but we quickly found ourselves slipping into the habit of toggling back and forth between Spanish and English.

We then tried a simultaneous dual language model at home, where mami would be the Spanish only speaker, and papi would be the English only model. But when I went back to work 18 months later, my daughter’s Spanish language acquisition became an issue again. My mom tried her best to speak Spanish to my daughter, but English is the predominant language in her household, and I noticed my daughter picking up more and more English as her vocabulary expanded. I found myself constantly saying “y en español se dice ____.” The constant prompting and reminders were imperative, but it was exhausting. There were days that I simply wouldn’t try, because it became overwhelming to try to push our native language while surrounded by such a monolinguistic culture.

I didn’t want to give up, but I worried that I had failed my daughter. I worried that my little 2-year old would reject the language that I love so much, and not reap the countless cognitive and social benefits of being bilingual.

So, I did some research on local preschool programs that offered language immersion programs. However, nearly every program that I came across only provided students with exposure to the target language for approximately 20-30 minutes a week.

I decided to put my daughter in a small language school in Redondo Beach, which prepares their students for dual language programs through play-based thematic units in the target language. The first few months were difficult as she struggled to adjust to this new environment. However, she quickly adapted to her new class, and before we knew it, she was spending her day learning and playing predominantly in Spanish.

When she turned 5 years old, we came to another fork in our language learning journey. Would we pull her out of her Spanish Immersion Preschool and enroll her into an English-only transitional kindergarten program? We knew that keeping her in a program that supported her Spanish language instruction was a priority to us, but unfortunately, dual language programs are hard to come by before kindergarten.

Thankfully, we were able to keep her enrolled full time at her preschool for an additional year. Doing so was the best decision that we made, as she tested into our first choice dual language program as a native speaker.

Now, a few years later, my daughter is attending a 90/10 dual language program at our local public school and is thriving in 1st grade. She is not only able to maintain social and academic conversations in both Spanish and English, but she is reading and writing at grade level in both languages as well. She has made friends that come from different cultural backgrounds but share a love for language — and most importantly, she has fun and enjoys going to school every day.

I was lucky to be able to navigate this complex education system and go through a private preschool route. But this is not true for everyone, which is why I’m an advocate for equity in Early Childhood Education programs. Our education system has seen the importance and benefits of dual language programs and multicultural education across K-12 settings, but the same can’t be said for our Early Childhood Education programs. Not everyone can afford to enroll their children in private preschools, and I strongly encourage parents, educators, and administrators to advocate for those same dual language programs to extend to our Early Childhood settings. Doing so will allow for our children to reap the many benefits of being bilingual.

Marysol Perez is a bilingual mama born and raised in Los Angeles, a proud Xicana, a linguaphile, an educator who is passionate about making a positive impact in the lives of students, and an advocate for social change. She is currently a Language Arts Specialist at Lawndale Elementary School and was an English Learner Specialist at Synergy Academies in Los Angeles. 

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