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Raising a bilingual child: Educational options

Raising a bilingual child: Educational options

You've decided you want to raise your child or children with two languages, but you know that eventually they'll need more exposure and instruction than you can give them at home. Depending on where you live, there may be several bilingual education options to choose from. Learn more with this article from

Language immersion schools

One of the best ways to ensure that your kids grow up both bilingual and bi-literate (that is, speaking and reading in two languages) is by sending them to a dual immersion language school.

Types of dual immersion schools

These are the two main models for these schools:

The 90:10 model. In this type of school, most subjects are taught in the targeted second language from day one, with English introduced gradually as the children get older.

For example, let's say the targeted second language is Spanish. First-grade students would spend 90 percent of their time learning in Spanish and 10 percent learning in English. By the time those students were in fifth grade, they'd spend half their day learning in Spanish and half in English.

The 50:50 model. Here, kids learn equally in both languages from the very beginning.

Schools have different ways of achieving this goal. Some do it by dividing the school day in two, using English for half the day and the second language for half. Others teach certain subjects in English and others in the second language. Still others alternate languages each week.

Elements of a successful dual immersion program

For dual immersion programs to work, two things must be in place:

First, classes must have the right ratio of students who speak English to those who speak the target language.

Roughly 50 percent of the children should speak English and the other 50 percent the target language, such as Spanish. Sometimes, these programs also have their share of children who are already bilingual.

"They're not just hearing the teacher speak the language, but also the other students," explains Christina Allen, coordinator of the Foreign Language Academies in Glendale, California. "They are learning from each other, and that makes all of them feel valuable and capable."

Second, parents must make a commitment to stay with the school for the duration of their children's elementary education.

Otherwise, the program will fail because new students can't be brought into the program at just any grade level unless they're already bilingual. To bring in children who aren't bilingual would create a disadvantage for the new kids as well as those already in the program.

Find out more about language immersion schools.

Structured language classes

The structure provided by attending classes at a language school once or twice a week takes language learning to another level. Depending on the age of your child, your choices will vary.

Some language schools, like the Alliance Française, offer classes to children as young as 1 year. At first, children learn songs and basic vocabulary, like the colors and the parts of the body. As they get older, the classwork becomes more complex. Eventually the curriculum incorporates grammar and reading comprehension, among other skills.

Because the best way for children to learn is through interactive play, many language classes use the arts to introduce or reinforce a second language. Some, like MusicalKids International and Music Lingua, are based solely on music. Not only is music fun, but the repetitiveness of song lyrics is perfect for building vocabulary.

To find structured language classes in your area, try an online search using the phrase Spanish classes for children.

Heritage language schools

Heritage language schools are typically Saturday or Sunday schools created by a community interested in passing its language and culture to the next generation. Children enrolled in this type of program may already be proficient in the minority language, and most have some sort of cultural connection to it through their family.

If you can't find one in your area, you might want to consider starting your own.

Begin by making sure you have enough interested families. Then you'll need to identify qualified teachers willing to dedicate a few hours of their weekend to the project. You'll also need a place and funding for materials. Above all, you and the rest of the parents have to be dedicated.

"Our school would die without parental involvement," says Rey Rodriguez, a longtime member of Grupo Educa, a heritage language school in Pasadena, California. "The organization was founded by parents who were willing to make fantastic sacrifices to make sure that their children didn't lose their connection with their past."

You can find out more about heritage language schools at the Heritage Language in America website.

Private tutors

There are several advantages to hiring a private language tutor for your bilingual child, most notably that it provides one-on-one instruction.

A tutor can assess a child's fluency and design a personalized program. If, for example, your child is learning Spanish and is already fairly fluent but needs additional help with reading skills, a tutor may be a great choice.

Something else to consider: To save on fees, why not split the cost of a tutor with another parent who's also raising a bilingual child? Ideally, both children being tutored would be at the same level of proficiency.

If your child is a bit older, online tutoring with a live tutor is another possibility. All you need is a computer with a webcam and a microphone.

The best part of this scenario is that it doesn't matter where the tutor is located. You can even hire someone in the country in which the target language is most frequently spoken.

Bilingual freelance journalist Roxana A. Soto is the co-founder and co-editor of SpanglishBaby, a website for parents raising bilingual and bicultural children.



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