The Value of a Bilingual Education

˙ PREAL Blog

This post is also available in: Spanish

In 2013, I moved to Honduras to teach middle school English at a community-run bilingual school outside San Pedro Sula. It is one of many such schools; a report by the Honduran government claims that the country has more bilingual schools than any other in Central America—over 800 in total, graduating more than 10,000 students annually. The current administration has worked assiduously to position Honduras as a potential home for companies seeking bilingual employees. Outsourcing services, such as call centers, and tourism are two of six key sectors highlighted in the country development program aimed at attracting foreign investment. Call centers in particular have boomed—since the first centers opened less than a decade ago, they have created over 15,000 jobs, and employers are still adding thousands of positions each year.

Even though English proficiency is required for many of these positions, and despite Latin America’s relative proximity to the United States, the country struggles to produce students with high-level English skills. On the Business English Index, which assesses English proficiency for the workplace, Honduras ranked lowest among all Latin American countries. While most people tested can read and communicate with simple phrases, the average test-taker is unable to communicate and understand information in a business setting.

The students at San Jeronimo Bilingual School (SJBS)—where I taught—are in many ways the exception to this pattern. Not only do they speak, read and write English with a high level of fluency, but—thanks to an innovative scholarship program—many come from low-income and vulnerable communities. Although the school does not evaluate student proficiency using a standardized assessment, there are several observable education quality indicators. Students communicate with their teachers exclusively in English. They are comfortable enough in the language to use it in a variety of contexts. Now that most of my former students have graduated from high school,[1] they are entering the labor force, and by far the most popular position is at a call center. The fact that SJBS graduates are consistently able to land these jobs is compelling evidence that they have the English skills necessary to succeed in a competitive work environment.

Even when students enter careers or education programs that don’t require English, their familiarity with the language can be an asset. For example, while entry-level positions in some industries may not require English, managerial positions often do, and young people seeking to advance in their careers will need these skills. Additionally, English language abilities can be a signal for other desirable skills that employers may look for, such as familiarity with diverse cultures. Multiple studies have shown that there are also extensive cognitive benefits to bilingualism, beyond the immediate advantages of being able to speak another language, such as improved executive function  to solve problems, a heightened ability to monitor changes in their environment and increased resistance to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Why has SJBS been so successful at producing English-proficient graduates? Although we lack rigorous empirical data on variables determining students’ English language abilities, it is safe to say there are a number of key factors—most of which the students themselves identify as critical to their success:

  1. Native English teachers. Because students listen to, learn from, and practice their English with native English speakers, they are able to self-correct errors and develop accurate pronunciation. One of the largest challenges facing Latin American countries who want to expand English language education is a lack of proficient English speakers to educate the next generation. A 2017 report by the Inter-American Dialogue identified exactly the type of volunteer teaching program that SJBS uses as a potential solution to this challenge. Unfortunately, the opportunity to learn from native English teachers is the exception, not the rule, in Honduras. After graduation from SJBS, many students found that their English was actually better than that that of their university and high school teachers—even in bilingual programs!
  2. Constant practice. From the moment they enter Pre-K, students at SJBS know that their teachers will speak to them in English, and they are expected to respond in English as well. Although the youngest students certainly speak more “Spanglish” than English, by the time they are in first and second grades, most students can express basic ideas in English. Additionally, SJBS students receive all of their core courses in English. This is not the case in many “bilingual” schools in Honduras, where students may have less than an hour a day of English instruction, and do not receive any core courses in English. Finally, because teachers live in the community, home visits are encouraged, giving students additional opportunities to practice speaking English with their teachers outside of a school setting.
  3. Access to books. In Honduras, books are expensive and difficult to find, especially books in English. Public lending libraries are essentially non-existent. Nevertheless, thanks to the efforts and generosity of teachers and volunteers, SJBS has built a library of more than 4,000 titles over the past decade and a half. Literacy is integrated into all aspects of the curriculum, and students are encouraged to take books home, read daily and discuss what they are reading. In reflecting on their experiences, many of my former students identified a love of reading as one of the most valuable benefits of their education. As a former teacher, I can attest to the fact that nothing could quiet a classroom like the chance to dig in to a new box of donated books.

Although there are many things about the SJBS model that work well, one of its major hindrances is that it is a difficult one to scale given the human resources and community buy-in necessary for its success. Recruiting, training and funding teachers from abroad is a serious endeavor, and not a realistic solution for the majority of Honduran schools. Additionally, SJBS (and the two other schools in its network) are run by local communities with a high degree of stakeholder involvement. This is not the case in most Honduran public schools. If Honduras is serious about expanding opportunities for students through English proficiency, it must rigorously pursue policy options to expand and strengthen its English education programs.

[1] This in itself is a significant accomplishment, since less than half of Hondurans complete secondary school (UIS, 2018).