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Commentary on Kim Potowski’s Talk, “Maximizing Latino Spanish Proficiency Through Dual Language Education”, by ARC Student Fellow Michelle Johnson-McSweeney

In her talk, “Maximizing Latino Spanish proficiency though dual language education,” Kim Potowski  identifies two major problems with how the United States education system treats language education. The first is that the United States does a terrible job of maintaining non-English languages, and the second is that second language education is our schools (also called “foreign” language education) starts too late and is largely ineffective. Her research is focused on one educational solution that addresses both problems: Dual language education.

There are three types of educational programs that serve English Language Learning (ELL) students. The first is English-only with English as a Second Language (ESL) support. The second is Transitional Language Education (TLE) where students use their first language as a support until they have English language proficiency. The goal of both ESL and TLE is English proficiency, not dual language proficiency. They are subtractive in the sense that students often lose their first language in order to acquire their second. The goal of Dual Language programs, the third program model and unfortunately by far the least common, is dual language proficiency, meaning that students add to their skills without losing any others. All too often, however, assessment is only conducted in English. Potowski’s study seeks to address this issue by assessing the Spanish language skills of students in Spanish/English Dual Language Education programs.

The results from Potowski’s research show that among students who have some level of Spanish proficiency (i.e., they speak Spanish at home, in the classroom, or are otherwise exposed to Spanish in their lives) and are enrolled in Dual Language programs performed better than students enrolled in English-only programs on tests of academic literacy. This, in and of itself, should not be surprising and it is what Potowski predicted. Yet, sometimes the expected findings are the most important because they had never been stated before. This, in effect, was the biggest take-away from Potowski’s research at this stage, that students develop proficiency in written Spanish as well as English.

I am looking forward to the future of this research as she moves in to analyzing the spoken communication as well. It is nearly taken for granted among linguists that spoken and written language are different language forms, and that a person can be completely fluent in a language yet not know how to write it. I expect that the analysis of students’ spoken language skills will only serve to further reinforce the need for Dual Language Education in the United States. Not only is it an additive approach to education, but students who emerge from these programs are bilingual in a country experiencing a serious lack of bilingual adults.

~ Michelle Johnson-McSweeney