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Dual language programs expand in NYC schools, bridging cultural barriers

Back in January, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña launched 33 new Pre-K dual language programs — classrooms where the curriculum is taught in two different Languages. The De Blasio administration has pushed hard for these programs in New York City — where around a quarter of 3 to 4 year-olds learn English as a second language. And this new approach is changing the way communities understand cultural differences. Our reporter Colin Marston has more.

It’s an early Thursday morning here at the Preschool of America in Flushing, Queens and dozens of 3 and 4 year olds are flooding into their classrooms. But this isn’t your average pre-school class. Here students are learning about wind in English, followed by rainbows and colors in Mandarin.

“We have the Chinese New Year theme, so we will talk about Chinese stories,” said Yimei Li a student teacher here at the preschool, which already has a dual-language program. Like a teaching aid, she bridges the gap between Mandarin and English learning, and leads Mandarin instruction. The difference here is that literacy is taught through content. Sometimes that means talking about leprechauns.

“Last week we have the lucky leprechaun and then we don’t have the leprechaun in China so some children couldn’t understand the leprechaun but then we will compare, we will compare Chinese fairies and the leprechaun,” said Li.

Yet it goes so much more beyond the pot of gold and a fiery dragon. These programs are reinventing how Americans think about cultures different then theirs. Dual language programs are leading the shift from the dominant world language model, where Spanish or French is taught for 45 minutes, to an immersive one that includes learning about magnetism in Hebrew or Renaissance art in Italian. They’re teaching kids a different set of skills in a globalized world.

“Intercultural competence is kind of the big thing. It’s being able to navigate different cultures, being able to take perspective, to understand where people are coming from,” said Kevin Wong. He studies the importance of how early childhood language skills set them up for success.

“So I think that this is where a lot of this happens, in the school, in elementary schools, you know starting young.”

But the implementation has been tricky. Dual language challenges a lot of norms about American education. There’s the fact that many teachers don’t speak two languages, especially when it’s a language much less common than Spanish or French. There’s standardized testing, which often fails to take into account the experiences of bilingual learning.

And the fact that there’s no one clear idea of what dual language is. David Rogers, Executive Director for Dual Language Education of New Mexico explains.

“These programs are growing so quickly and in so many different parts of the country that we have to sit down and say where do we need to reach consensus on definition and terminologies?”

In New York, there’s the issue of classrooms not having an equal ratio between English language learners and their native speaking counterparts. Andrea Sanpietro, the education director of Preschool of America, sees this issue play out first hand.

“Because of where we’re located we usually do get a lot of Asian American children wanting to enroll in our program.”

But not enough native English speakers.

“We do want to encourage that multiculturalism. And we don’t have a perfect 50-50 mix of course, but we’ll have some children of a different background,” said Sanpietro

Even with these issues, dual language is here to stay. Instead of having immigrants lose their native languages to enter American society, dual language programs argue against seeing identity as a zero-sum game. By 2044, the US will be a minority-majority country, with a polyphony of different voices. In an age of bans, borders, and populist rhetoric these children here in Flushing show a different future of cultures learning together.

For Columbia Radios News, I’m Colin Marston


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