Dual Language Programs: Language as More than Communication

In October, UNC School of Education Assistant Professor Dr. Claudia Cervantes-Soon shared her research on Dual Language Programs from the perspective of Latin@ students in a presentation entitled “Interrupting the Silence of Latin@ Students in Dual Language Education.” Dual Language programs have the potential to promote equity and social justice goals within public school settings for Latin@ students; Cervantes-Soon studied students’ identities at a personal level within these programs. She did this through an ethnographic approach, observing the culture of multiple Spanish/ English dual-language programs and classrooms. Her research uncovered that while there are multiple goals within these dual language programs, the goal of the dominant group, the white students and families in this study, were

Cervantes-Soon framed the study through the lens that language is more than just a way to communicate. Language is attached to a person’s identity and this makes it political. Two-way dual language programs often state that their goals are to promote bilingualism, biliteracy, and cross-cultural competencies. Instruction takes place in both English and the target language, which for the schools in this study is Spanish. The hope is that Latin@ students will feel more secure and will participate more within these programs because at least some of the instruction is their native language. Cervantes-Soon, however, found just the opposite.

Here are some of the findings of this study:

  • Latin@ students do not always speak standard Spanish, just as native English speakers often do use Standard English. This led Latin@ students to self-censor, often silencing them in class.
  • English dominates spontaneous conversation within all class time regardless of the language used for instruction.
  • Many English speaking parents see Spanish as a commodity and many times this leads to Latin@s serving as cultural brokers to the mainstream students.
  • Many teachers felt that the silence from their Latin@ students was due to cultural differences, but Cervantes-Soon’s investigation revealed other factors at play. Some of these factors include classroom norms, the dialect of Spanish used in the classroom, and the few students who dominated classroom interaction, calling attention to themselves and away from other students.
  • Those who seem to get the most out of dual language programs are white boys because of their ability to dominate the teacher and their classmates primarily through verbal mechanisms (interrupting, challenging, questioning, participation).
  • There are three agents for change to interrupt the silence of Latin@ students: teachers, students, and Latin@ parents.

Cervantes-Soon continues to investigate dual language programs and asserts that there are many benefits to these programs and that no two are exactly alike. As schools implement these programs and school boards adjust their policies, this idea of working to strengthen the identity of the Latin@ students needs to be made a high priority.

cervantes-soonCervantes-Soon’s scholarship contributes to U.S. and international perspectives of social and educational contexts, as well as to understandings of transnational processes that examine the degree to which educational institutions are able to fulfill their potential in reducing inequality, promoting social justice, and resulting in greater humanization.