Advantages of bilingualism seen at 3 Az schools
When Maria Taracena moved from Guatemala City to Tucson 10 years ago she didn’t speak English.
“It took me awhile to become accustomed to the way of living,” Taracena said. “I’d say the biggest transition though was learning English.”
After living for 10 years in the United States, Taracena is now fluent in English. She also still speaks Spanish daily at home with her family and her Spanish-speaking friends.
Although being bilingual has been shown by researchers to have certain benefits for cognitive development, there are only three bilingual schools to foster that development in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Education website.
While bilingual children have a more limited vocabulary in English, they are able to better complete tasks that measure the development of the area of the brain responsible for language.
Though Taracena considers herself to be bilingual, her path to bilingualism differs from students who are building those skills at Roskruge Bilingual Magnet School in Tucson.
“I love to promote with our students how many doors being bilingual is going to open for them,” said Jose Olivas, principal of Roskruge and a bilingual educator for 25 years. “There’s a saying, ‘El que habla dos idiomas vale por dos’ which means ‘he who speaks two languages is two people.' ”
Some parents believe bilingual education and upbringing expands opportunities for children to explore other paths toward a successful future, at least at Roskruge.
The bilingual magnet school holds a lottery for parents or guardians who want to enroll children in the school when a spot opens. With 700 students enrolled in kindergarten to eighth grade, Roskruge only has two spots, one in kindergarten and one in sixth grade, open for the 2012-2013 school year.
The school’s average elementary class size is 25 students, while the average class size in middle school is 30.
“Our parents understand our program and are very supportive of our program,” Olivas said. “They see the importance of learning a second language and perhaps they weren’t taught a second language because of the pressure to learn only English. Now, those parents are starting to see what they missed out on and want their children to have that opportunity.”
According to Olivas, the Roskruge bilingual program alternates teaching subjects in one language one week, then continues lessons in the other language the following week.
“We’re not translating everything. Some weeks you will hear language arts in Spanish and language arts in English,” Olivas said. “It’s a spiral, you’re building on it—becoming bilingual and biliterate doesn’t happen overnight.”
Despite the opportunities and benefits, bilingualism in Arizona has seen pressure from political initiatives in the past.
In 2000, the state Legislature passed Arizona Proposition 203 English for Children, which prohibited “teaching of reading, writing or subject matter” in a language other than English.
The initiative, though, allows parental waivers for students to continue in a bilingual program.
“I feel a bilingual education is what’s best for students,” Olivas said. “It’s foolish to think that learning a second language is going to hurt you. It’s only going to help you.”
Joseph Casillas, a University of Arizona instructor who teaches Spanish to students who were raised in homes where English was not the dominant langauge, grew up speaking both English and Spanish.
“I think we have this myth of the perfect bilingual—where the person is exactly the same in both languages,” Casillas said. “The biggest difference is that the bilingual is dealing with two worlds. They have to separate and decide and match up the languages with certain situations and certain people.”
While the differences and advantages continue to be explored through research, Casillas said there is still more to be discovered.
“It’s true there is research that shows bilinguals doing things that monolingual kids can’t do,” Casillas said. “But, you have to take it with a grain of salt because other research for example shows that bilingual kids don’t perceive sounds in either language as fast as a monolingual does. I wouldn’t even say it’s a disadvantage, but you can just see the differences.”