Learning languages in a digital world

March 7, 2018 GMT

As one who has worked in bilingual education for almost two decades, the question I am always asked is, “When is the best time to become bilingual?” The answer: The best time is now! This week, the National Association for Bilingual Education is meeting in Albuquerque, so there is no better time to deliver that message.

While we all understand the obvious advantage of learning a second language at an early age, today’s technology has created the perfect opportunity for anyone at any age to work toward bilingualism and biliteracy. From websites to downloadable apps, anybody with access to a computer, tablet or smartphone can boost both receptive and productive skills in more than one language.

In fact, many digital resources walk learners through a natural experience beginning with basic interpersonal communication skills. If used as designed, the digital tools increase the level of difficulty gradually, allowing learners to achieve ideal cognitive academic language proficiency. However, these linear paths from basic to advanced academic skills have been overtaken by what is known as “adaptive capability.” This feature has revolutionized the field of bilingual education.

Ten years ago, I started working for an education technology company that developed computer-adaptive reading programs for both English and Spanish elementary classrooms. At that time, I thought I was really entering the future. What an incredible concept poised to impact education in the 21st century.

I am talking about a remarkable innovation that takes bilingualism from a mere language-acquisition experience to a new level of personalized second-language development. This means that each learner has an individualized path that unfolds through interaction with a tool that adapts to the specific skills and knowledge of the user. The idea is to create a learning experience unique to an individual’s own ability.

This technology reflects the modern reality: American children today are exposed to bilingualism (English and Spanish) from birth to age 5 more than ever before. This creates an opportunity to enhance learning because the education system — which has always had “foreign language” requirements — now can do more. Today, school districts increasingly implement dual-language and bilingual education programs that give students the support necessary to become bilingual and biliterate by the time they graduate.

As research continues to emerge, sequential and simultaneous bilingual education approaches are inundating our education systems in support of the “Seal of Biliteracy” that many states, including New Mexico, have established. This high school achievement rewards students who are proficient in both receptive and productive skills. In other words, they can listen, read, write and speak in two languages.

The rewards of bilingualism plus the widespread use of adaptive technology in the classroom have resulted in long waiting lists of students whose parents eagerly want them to take advantage of today’s perfect timing to become bilingual. This is why I insist: Becoming bilingual and biliterate has never been more possible — or important — than it is today.

Viviana Hall is a bilingual/English as a second language national education consultant who started her career as a bilingual teacher in 1997. She has been instrumental in the development of Spanish-language products for Istation, an education technology company based in Dallas. A national educational consultant, Hall will be presenting this week at the 2018 National Association for Bilingual Education convention in Albuquerque.