1. Why do TWI programs strictly separate the two languages for instruction? Is there research to support this practice?

It is important that two-way immersion teachers help their students access each language of instruction through that language. Exposing them to consistent periods of instruction through each language is one way to help them figure out how the language works. Systematic translation of information is ineffective and can undermine students’ second language development for several reasons:

  • If students know that a translation in their stronger language will be provided, they are likely to tune out instruction in their weaker language.
  • Teachers who rely on translation are less likely to make appropriate accommodations for comprehensible input through the second language—that is, they are less likely to try to adapt the language of instruction to the learners’ level of comprehension.
  • Translation is likely to be biased towards English during instructional time in Spanish or other partner languages. Too much reliance on translation can significantly reduce the time spent working in and through the partner language.

For these reasons, the importance of language separation is supported by dual language researchers in Dual Language Instruction: A Handbook for Enriched Education by Cloud, Genesee, and Hamayan (2000) as well as Dual Language Essentials for Teachers and Administrators by Freeman, Freeman, and Mercuri (2005).

However, this is not to say that the two program languages should never be used simultaneously during instruction. Classroom discussions about language, such as cross-linguistic comparisons of vocabulary (e.g., cognates) are appropriate contexts for using both program languages together, as this type of joint use can strengthen students’ development in each language as well as foster important links between the two languages (August, Calderón, & Carlo, 2002; Carlo, August, McLaughlin, Snow, Dressler, Lippman, Lively, & White, 2004). Similarly, because of the inevitable language shifts that occur when two different language communities come together, many Spanish speaking communities in the United States speak a blended variety of Spanish and English, and it can be appropriate to provide opportunities for students in these communities to use such hybrid language forms on occasion (Hadi-Tabassum, 2002). Such conscious teaching strategies support bilingual development by building on all the linguistic resources that students have and helping students to recognize sociocultural cues about when it is appropriate to use standard or non-standard forms of a language. However, TWI teachers must be very judicious in their simultaneous use of both program languages, and be conscious of how, why, and when they adopt this practice. The simultaneous use of both languages for translation of academic content is clearly not recommended.

In the 50/50 dual language programs of School District 54 in Schaumburg, IL, teachers have found that when language separation is maintained in time, place, teacher, and content, students’ language production in the partner language increases over time. They have observed this in Grades 2, 3, 5, and 6 in both their English-Spanish and English-Japanese programs.

Because research has shown that a natural language environment encourages the development of communication skills (Dulay, Burt & Krashen, 1982), the Key Elementary immersion program in Arlington, VA, Public Schools promotes the development of a natural language environment and uses this as a guiding principle for their classrooms. As a result, the program discourages the use of translation because it disrupts the natural flow of speech. Teachers believe that if they have high expectations for their students and utilize appropriate instructional strategies, the students will make great progress in the two languages of the program.

Finally, while translation of academic content is not considered an appropriate teaching strategy in TWI settings, it can be appropriate to teach students translation and interpretation skills at the secondary level, when their language and literacy skills in both languages have reached high levels. For example, the International Studies Program in the Cambridge, MA Public School District provides courses in medical and legal interpretation. These kinds of courses prepare students for jobs that capitalize on the students’ bilingualism and biliteracy, and are therefore quite appropriate at the secondary level.