The Best of Both Worlds
How we teach respect, confidence, and languages at the same time.
By Pilar Pinedo
Jennifer is a bright, confident second- grader whose parents are both well-educated professionals. Yet I often see her seeking academic help from children whose parents are much farther down the social ladder.
That’s because I teach in a two-way Spanish and English bilingual immersion program, which I believe brings out the best in our children and gives them excellent preparation for the world in which they will live. Our students learn half of the time in their native language and half in their second language.
“How do I say, ‘I want a drink of water’ in Spanish?” Jennifer asks her friend, Rose. And Rose, who’s from Ecuador, immediately drops what she is doing to help. Another time, it will be Jennifer helping Rose with English. They’re both learning languages, and learning to respect the expertise of someone from a very different background-—a priceless experience.
That’s the strength of the two-way bilingual model: It brings together, on an equal footing, kids from very different socio-economic backgrounds and cultures, teaching them to trust and depend on each other. They’re a family.
Generally, it’s best to start two-way bi-lingual education in kindergarten, although when necessary, we can make it work for children who start much later. Our students learn to read first in their native language and then in their second language.
Learning a new language is a major undertaking at any age. I adjust my instruction to the needs of each child. Some come from homes with plenty of books, and these students are often quick to pick up a second language without much scaffolding. But for others, school learning is a bigger leap. Their parents may never have gone to school in the country they left. I use their home language to ease their way into English. Sometimes I’ll give them an outline in Spanish for the English-language lesson we’re about to do, so they won’t get lost in the middle and give up. And, in a two-way bilingual classroom, there are always plenty of English-speaking students around to help.
Getting extra help is comfortable for these immigrant children because they know that next period, they’ll be the language experts.
Our immigrant parents love the program because it reinforces their cultural heritage while at the same time helping their children learn English. They know many of their children’s teachers are well-educated, Hispanic or Spanish-speaking professionals, providing strong role models. And they feel comfortable coming into the school because they find people there who speak their language. Parents who speak little English can ask me to explain their child’s homework assignment without the embarrassment of stumbling over unfamiliar words.
Our English-speaking parents know they, too, are providing a wonderful opportunity for their children.
Last year, the award-winning Yarina Ecuadorian music ensemble performed at our school because the son and niece of the group leaders were our students. It was amazing to see everyone from kindergartner to principal dancing and singing to their music.
This is the way our nation of immigrants is supposed to work—benefiting from what immigrants bring with them, while integrating them into American culture.
When I was a young girl, the American-born daughter of Colombian immigrants, some people thought it was harmful for a child to try to learn two languages at once. Fortunately for me, my parents rejected that view. They wanted me to be bilingual, so they spoke to me in Spanish while I learned English from my older siblings and friends. In our changing world, my parents’ wisdom becomes more evident every year.
These days, when the stock market crashes on the other side of the world, it crashes here the next day. Everybody is thinking globally. Giving our children a bilingual education is one of the best ways to act locally.
Pilar Pinedo teaches English-language arts in the K—7 UNIDOS program of the East Somerville Community School in Somerville, Massachusetts. Students’ names have been changed. For links to pedagogical resources for English-language learners .
PHOTO: PATRICIA McDONNELL