When Maria Taracena moved 10 years ago from Guatemala City, Guatemala to Tucson she didn’t speak English.
“It took me awhile to become accustomed to the way of living,” Taracena said. “I’d say the biggest transition though was learning English.”
Now, after living completely immersed for 10 years in the United States, Taracena is fluent in English. She also still speaks Spanish daily at home with her family and her Spanish-speaking friends in the Tucson community.
Even though being bilingual has been shown by researchers to have certain benefits for cognitive development, there are currently only three bilingual schools to foster that development in Arizona—according to the Arizona Department of Education website.
Listen to bilingual speakers in the Tucson, Ariz. community talk about the impact of two languages on their lives and professions.
While bilingual children have a more limited vocabulary in English than a monolingual child, bilingual children are able to complete tasks that measure the development of the area of the brain responsible for languages faster and with a better score.
Though Taracena considers herself to be bilingual, her path to bilingualism differs from current students who are building their bilingual skills at Roskruge Bilingual Magnet School in Tucson.
“I love to promote with our students how many doors being bilingual is going to open for them,” said Jose Olivas, principal of Roskruge and a bilingual educator for 25 years. “There’s a saying, ‘El que habla dos idiomas vale por dos’ which means ‘He who speaks two languages is two people.”
Some parents seem to be buying in to the notion that bilingual education and a bilingual upbringing expands opportunities for children to explore other paths towards a successful future, at least at Roskruge.
The bilingual magnet school holds a lottery for parents or guardians who want to enroll their child in the school when a spot opens up. Currently with 700 students enrolled in kindergarten to 8th grade, Roskruge only has two spots, one in kindergarten and one in sixth grade, opening for the 2012-2013 school year.
The school’s average class size in elementary school is 25 students, while the average class size in middle school is 30 students.
“Our parents understand our program and are very supportive of our program,” Olivas said. “They see the importance of learning a second language and perhaps they weren’t taught a second language because of the pressure to learn only English. Now, those parents are starting to see what they missed out on and want their children to have that opportunity.”
According to Olivas, the Roskruge bilingual program teaches students subjects in one language one week, then changes the language the following week, but continues the lesson—picking up where the curriculum left off the previous week.
“We’re not translating everything. Some weeks you will hear language arts in Spanish and language arts in English,” Olivas said. “It’s a spiral, you’re building on it—becoming bilingual and bi-literate doesn’t happen overnight.”
Despite the opportunities and benefits language learning expands for students, bilingualism in Arizona has seen pressure from political initiatives in the past.
Arizona Proposition 203 English for Children, was a 2000 passed legislation that prohibited “teaching of reading, writing or subject matter” in a language other than English.
The initiative, though, also allows districts to acknowledge parental waivers for students to continue or stay in a bilingual program.
“I feel a bilingual education is what’s best for students,” Olivas said. “It’s foolish to think that learning a second language is going to hurt you. It’s only going to help you.”
Joseph Casillas, a University of Arizona instructor who teaches Spanish classes to heritage speakers (students who are raised in a home where the dominant language spoken is not English), grew up speaking both English and Spanish.
Through his classroom teaching at the UA, Casillas says he can view the struggle of the minds of heritage students—how they are trying to grasp their heritage language through grammar instruction as opposed to just language immersion at home.
However, regardless of how bilingual skills are attained, experts agree that the bilingual arena is always changing depending on where a person is living or what a person is doing—a constant struggle of the bilingual or multilingual person.
“I think we have this myth of the perfect bilingual—where the person is exactly the same in both languages,” Casillas said. “The biggest difference is that the bilingual is dealing with two worlds. They have to separate and decide and match up the languages with certain situations and certain people.”
While the differences and advantages continue to be explored through research, Casillas says that there is still more to be discovered when considering bilingualism.
“It’s true there is research that shows bilinguals doing things that monolingual kids can’t do,” Casillas said. “But, you have to take it with a grain of salt because other research for example shows that bilingual kids don’t perceive sounds in either language as fast as a monolingual does. I wouldn’t even say it’s a disadvantage, but you can just see the differences.”