NEW YORK, N.Y. – In Elizabeth Menéndez’s kindergarten classroom, red time on the schedule means teachers and students should speak Spanish; blue time is reserved for English. Then, there’s purple time, a “safe language space”, where students use whichever words they prefer in the moment.
Nurturing bilingual students is the mission of the 400-student public school where Menéndez teaches, Dos Puentes Elementary in Washington Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood of New York City. By the time its students graduate to middle school, they are well on their way to mastering both written and spoken English and Spanish, said principal Victoria Hunt, who was part of the group that founded the school in 2012 after more than two decades as a dual language teacher and assistant principal
Purple time is key to reaching that goal. Although teachers in many bilingual classrooms around the country often informally allow kids to use both languages, their schools have historically pressed for a stricter separation of languages. But in the last decade, more and more researchers have advocated for what Menéndez does during purple time – what they call “translanguaging.” The model gives students a chance to use all of their language skills in the classroom and calls for embracing the value of doing so.
Chris Bacon-Chang, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia who studies language policy, has seen recognition of the model grow among his students, both future teachers and teachers returning for more training. In 2014, he says, not a single one of his students had heard of translanguaging but in each of the last couple years, he has gotten several questions from his students about the model. Both linguistics and education scholars cite a similar trend, noting growing attention on translanguaging at conferences and in academic publications.
Researchers point to Dos Puentes Elementary as a school realizing the promise of the model. Nearly 75 percent of Dos Puentes students are Latino. Thirty one percent of the student body is among the more than six million U.S. students labeled English learners, the fastest growing student group in the country. Nationwide, fewer than 15 percent of English learners are in bilingual classrooms and around 85 percent of them attend schools where their home language is used as more of a crutch until they transition to English-only classrooms.
At Dos Puentes, the entire staff is committed to helping students learn and thrive in both languages for their entire time at the school. “In other schools, bilingualism was not accepted or important,” said Menéndez, who has been teaching for 27 years. Both Menéndez and Hunt say other schools that teach English learners often suffer from a lack of resources and training and little support or outright resistance from school administrators, whose priority is to teach English. As a relatively new school, Dos Puentes offered a fresh start.
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In kindergarten, Dos Puentes students spend three days per week focusing on Spanish and two days per week on English, and for the rest of their time in the school, the languages are evenly split. “We really want to build the Spanish base, given that we’re in an English dominant world in the United States,” Hunt said.
Each class has two teachers, one for each language, and every subject – literacy, math, social studies, science, music, dance and art – is taught in both languages by the mostly bilingual staff.
Yesenia Moreno, a 4th and 5th grade science teacher at Dos Puentes, says that content is never repeated in a different language. Instead, she switches languages to make connections and strengthen previous knowledge. For example, she might start a class by reminding students in Spanish what they talked about the day before in English and introduce new Spanish vocabulary along the way.
Moreno said students “gravitate to their stronger language,” but that she is proud they are able to “produce with both languages.” She believes that bilingual education helps her amplify and enhance her curriculum and is happy to see immigrant students “make leaps in English but maintain their Spanish.”
During the last two pandemic years, many Dos Puentes students did not take New York State tests, making it hard to track their progress. But Hunt has another way to measure success. Most Dos Puentes students get into their first-choice middle school, she said, an accomplishment in New York City’s complex and competitive educational system.
Fluency in a language like Spanish is considered just as important as English in dual language programs like the one at Dos Puentes. And creating space for bilingual students to jump between their languages throughout the school day is a logical extension.
“Translanguaging is just the natural way that we multilingual people use language.”
Gladys Aponte, researcher and former dual language teacher
“Translanguaging is just the natural way that we multilingual people use language,” said Gladys Aponte, a former dual language teacher who has conducted research at Dos Puentes as part of her graduate work. “We don’t separate the part of our brain that uses English with the part that has Spanish.”
The term “translanguaging” is actually a translation of trawsieithu, a Welsh word first used to describe bilingual classrooms in Wales that has been extended to the practice of creating space for any two languages in schools.
The model does not call for students to speak whatever language they want all the time at school. But advocates of the model explain that allowing, and even encouraging, students to use all of their languages as they learn can support their academic success. This becomes particularly clear in a math classroom. Modern math tests are full of language. When students try to solve word problems, teachers aim to assess their computational skills but end up testing their vocabulary, too.
Last year’s New York State math test, for example, asked fourth graders to determine the total number of people that would fit in a baseball park, given that it had three sections, one with 20 fewer seats than another and a third with two times as many. A native Spanish speaker who could do the math but doesn’t understand the words “fewer” or “times as many” would be stuck.
At schools like Dos Puentes, students see math word problems in Spanish, too, and they get a chance to prove their skills while they expand their vocabulary in English.
Related: A Spanish-English high school proves learning in two languages can boost graduation rates
Multiple languages, though, are not always welcome in U.S. public schools. Bilingual education has been controversial in this country for more than a century. In the last 25 years alone, California, Arizona and Massachusetts voters banned bilingual education. Although the Massachusetts legislature and California voters have overturned the bans, Arizona’s law remains in place. Tom Horne, a Republican, was just elected state superintendent of public instruction after campaigning on a promise to keep bilingual education out of the classroom.
Still, the controversy is political, not scientific. “People seem to have this idea that you have a finite space of language development that you can attain and if you [learn] two languages you’ll never become really good in both of them,” said Monika Schmid, a linguistics professor at York University in England. “It’s just nonsense.”
“Almost any topic in science is controversial among scientists,” Schmid added. “The question about whether bilingual development is good is one of the few things on which absolutely everyone agrees in the field. There is no controversy.”
Dual language programs like Dos Puentes’ have increased in popularity over the last two decades, as more white and wealthy families see bilingualism as an investment in their children’s future. That demand has led to concerns that immigrant students, for whom the programs were created, are being displaced. At Dos Puentes, school leaders remain mindful. School meetings are conducted in both languages, and they know the order matters.
“We try to say things in Spanish before we say them in English,” said Hunt, the principal. They take special pains to make sure Spanish-speaking families feel welcomed at the school and recognized as partners in their children’s education. In fact, the school has become known for fostering an unusual degree of parent involvement from families of different backgrounds.
Adriana Castro came to New York at 22 from Latin America and has two children who graduated from Dos Puentes. “As an immigrant I never felt any shame and always felt heard [at Dos Puentes],” she said. When Castro arrived in the U.S., not speaking English made things difficult. She knew she wanted her children to be bilingual, both to succeed here and to be able to speak Spanish with her and their extended family. Her son Anthony, now 12, told her when he was in first grade at Dos Puentes that one of the benefits of being bilingual was that he got to laugh twice at every joke. He would laugh upon hearing a joke in Spanish and after working to retain the humor in his second language, get to laugh again when he told the joke to his English-speaking friends.
Castro said that many immigrant parents focus on making sure their kids learn English so they can succeed in the U.S. and they assume their children will pick up Spanish at home. She advises them, instead, to worry about not losing Spanish. Census data shows a smaller share of Latinos in the U.S. speak Spanish now than did a decade ago. Castro is glad her children have bucked that trend, with the help of Dos Puentes.
Related: Rising popularity of dual-language education could leave Latinos behind
In fact, the benefits of attending dual language schools like Dos Puentes are far-reaching.
Zhongfeng Tian is an assistant professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio focused on how educators design supportive programs for bilingual students, including in dual language classrooms. He speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and English and says that people who speak multiple languages often feel shamed for their speech, or accent, and face criticism for blending their languages. Blending English and Spanish can be derogatorily referred to as speaking Spanglish; Blending Mandarin and English is mocked as speaking Chinglish, Tian said. Working with teachers in a Mandarin immersion program in Massachusetts, Tian saw how translanguaging helped students understand complex ideas, increased class participation, and supported positive cultural identity.
At Dos Puentes, Latino students learn to feel proud of their native language. And translanguaging ensures they get to use it regularly. One stretch of “purple time” in Menéndez’s kindergarten classroom is at the end of the day during what the school calls “explorations.” Students choose puzzles or games, and Menéndez also lets them choose their language as they talk and play. She said children often end up switching between English and Spanish.
Nationwide, fewer than 15 percent of English learners are in bilingual classrooms
Rebeca Madrigal, one of the school’s founding Spanish teachers, does this during story time with her second graders. She chooses books about civil rights leaders, like César Chávez and Martin Luther King Jr., or with characters the kids can relate to.
One afternoon she was reading “El Regalo Mágico,” a Spanish language book about an immigrant Dominican boy in New York who struggles to live in two cultures. In one chapter, the main character describes his feelings as his plane leaves his island home. Suddenly one of the students chimed in about having similar feelings leaving Mexico. In Spanish, the child told the class about the journey crossing the border on foot. In some of the houses they stopped in along the way, there was food and other kids to play with. Other houses had neither. The student shared about being scared of traveling at night, being sad to leave grandparents, and being excited to meet parents who left for the U.S. years before.
Madrigal said the story brought tears to the eyes of teachers and students alike. She thinks it was important that the child was able to tell a personal story in Spanish in a classroom in New York City, with bilingual classmates who could empathize.
Allowing students to use both languages in the classroom is at the core of Dos Puentes’ mission to educate bilingual speakers. If a class is being conducted in English and a student answers a question in Spanish, he will not be reprimanded or forced to answer in English. Teachers recognize that by answering the question in Spanish, the student understood what was asked in English but might not be ready to reply in that language. “As a teacher,” Madrigal said, “you know when to give time or when to push the students to encourage them to speak a second language.”
“We are not the language police,” said Hunt, the principal. “We are here to help kids.”
This story about translanguaging was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.