Parents Who Fight for Bilingual Education

Creating dual-language programs from the bottom up.

Posted Sep 26, 2017

Interview conducted by François Grosjean

Many of those interested in bilingual education in the United States have been observing the New York area. There, groups of parents working with teachers and school officials  have helped found dual-language programs in the public school system. How did they go about it? What were the challenges they had to face? How did they obtain the support they needed? What were the problems they had to solve? Dr. Fabrice Jaumont played a leadership role in this grassroots movement and he has just written a book about it. The Bilingual Revolution (see here) describes what happened and gives the necessary ingredients for those who plan to start such a program. He has kindly accepted to answer a few of our questions and we thank him wholeheartedly.

Bilingual education has existed for a long time in the United States, both in private schools and in public schools. In what way is the dual-language educational movement you describe in your book "revolutionary"?

The bilingual revolution that I have directly contributed to over the last twelve years, and that I describe in the book, is led from the bottom up by families who appreciate the value of bilingualism because it is part of their American identity. Although the roots of bilingual education in the United States can be traced back to the 17th Century, the book shows how this new movement is driven by parents and educators who have founded dual-language programs in public schools.

Like these parents, I am convinced that bilingual education is a universal good that should be offered to all students. These pioneers illustrate how these programs can positively transform a child, a family, a school, a community, and even a country.

In an earlier post, we describe immersion programs as well as dual-language programs (see here). Why is it that you have favored the latter? 

I actually like them both! My first encounter with immersion schools was in Massachusetts in the late 1990s. As a native of France, these programs immediately caught my attention because they offered immersive curricula in French, from kindergarten to high school, to children in the United States who did not necessarily have a particular connection to the French language or a French-speaking country.

More importantly, these programs were in public schools, free of charge, and therefore accessible to every student and family. This made a strong impression on me as I witnessed children mastering my own native language, eventually becoming bilingual and biliterate themselves. Now, as the father of two bilingual and bicultural girls who attend a dual-language program in a public school in Brooklyn, I am deeply attached to the concept of dual-language education as a way to both sustain a cultural heritage and acquire a second language.

There are a growing number of dual-language programs created not only to serve English language learners, but also students for whom English is a native language. This can be explained by the overwhelming evidence that educating children in multiple languages offers a competitive advantage in the global economy, boosting not only their foreign language skills but also improving their English reading and comprehension, and even their math skills. These programs concentrate on the advantages of bilingualism for all students involved, regardless of the language skills they come in with.

When did the New York grassroots movement start and what triggered it?

New York City provides the backdrop for my book, where parents have fought for access to various bilingual public school programs from preschool to high school over decades. Of course, similar programs have developed in hundreds of cities in the United States and around the world. New York has been particularly active on this front since the 1960s. Throughout the Civil Rights era, the Latino community played a pioneering role in calling for bilingual education, not only as a way of educating their children, but also as a means to realize the promise of equal citizenship.

The grassroots movement that I describe in my book is more recent. It started 15 years ago and is triggered by parents and communities, and their desire to educate their children bilingually. This, in part, can be explained by the fact that more and more people understand and value the unique characteristics of the bilingual brain and person, and will explain how being bilingual can help improve a child’s ability to learn, focus, communicate, and understand the world.

How can parents, most of whom are not educators or teachers, become adequate proponents of dual-language programs, all the way from the initial conception to the maintenance of the program once it has started?

I wanted the book to be directed towards families, with the goal of providing accessible knowledge, guidance, and encouragement as they consider implementing a dual-language program in their community or school. In that spirit, the book provides a roadmap for parents willing to embark on such an initiative, along with suggested steps to follow, examples, and testimonies from parents and educators who have chosen a similar path.

As such, my book doubles as a “how to” manual for setting up your own dual-language program and, in so doing, launching your own revolution. This is a role I have held for the last ten years, providing tips and resources to many program founders and schools. I felt it was time for me to share this knowledge in a book.

The Bilingual Revolution describes many real successes but also some failures. Why did some programs fail and what can one learn from them?

Some of these stories illustrate many of the challenges and accomplishments new initiatives can face. Sometimes these group leaders face obstacles in finding a school and maintaining the interest of the parents involved. Sometimes it is a lack of commitment on behalf of the public schools. In many cases these stories highlight the importance of perseverance for communities and parents invested in their children’s education. In my book, I have compiled these trials and errors, and the lessons learned from them in a way that can be both useful and interesting to read.

Your book has been translated into several languages. Is it to get parents in other school systems, in other countries, interested in what you have done?

La Révolution bilingue is already available in French, and I plan to add eight additional translations by early 2018 (Arabic, Chinese, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Russian, and Spanish). In doing these translations, I want to reflect the various dual-language programs and linguistic communities that are featured in the book, and help other communities in the United States and elsewhere to follow in their lead.
 
Also, for some of these translations, I do hope my book will help raise awareness about the advantages of dual-language education, and inspire a few people in other countries to create their own programs.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of parents with their children from Shutterstock.

Reference

Jaumont, Fabrice (2017). The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education is in Two Languages. New York, NY: TBR Books.

François Grosjean's website.