Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Why raise a child bilingual? Parents on language, culture, and roots (Video)

Los Angeles County leads the state in the number of schools that offer bilingual education starting in kindergarten
Los Angeles County leads the state in the number of schools that offer bilingual education starting in kindergarten
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Bilingual education for English learners as it was once known in California  ended by law in the late 1990s. But in the years since, the popularity of a different kind of bilingual education , known as dual language immersion, has grown exponentially.

Unlike traditional bilingual education, it isn’t primarily designed to teach English to English learners. Rather, dual immersion is designed to teach school-age children to become fluent in a language other than English, whether it’s the parents’ native language or a new language that isn’t spoken in the home.

Dual language immersion programs have increased five-fold since the early 1990s in California; more than 300 schools in the state now have programs in languages that include Spanish, Armenian, German, Italian, French, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Japanese. The programs typically start in kindergarten, with native-speaker and non-native speaker children combined in one classroom.

Some immigrant parents see these programs as a way to pass along not just language, but also culture, traditions, and what can best be described as a special way of relating that can be lost in translation.

But it’s tricky. Aside from being competitive, dual immersion programs are optional and typically parent-driven. Some newer immigrant families aren’t necessarily aware of them, or prefer that their kids go into English-only classes. And while many experts tout these programs’ success, some families haven’t had the results they hoped for.

Below, a handful of parents who attended a recent KPCC forum on bilingual learning share stories about why they chose dual immersion for their kids. Most are immigrants; all wanted to pass along their heritage, with language as the primary vehicle. They talk about communicating with grandparents, holidays with special meaning, a certain sense of pride. If you grew up bilingual, or are trying to pass along the culture you grew up with to your kids, you’ll relate.

The forum was led by KPCC reporter Deepa Fernandes , who in January reported an informative three-part series on bilingual learning and its science; the videos were produced by intern Amy Lieu .

Hugo Enciso is a native Spanish speaker with roots in Mexico. His son is in the dual immersion program at Niemes Elementary School in Cerritos. For him, language and culture are inextricably tied.


Katja Jahn is an immigrant from Germany who wants to pass her culture along to her son. She’s on the board of trustees at Goethe International Charter School in Marina del Rey, which her son attends.

Josefina Vargas grew up in the U.S. as an ESL (English as a Second Language) student. She says learning in Spanish made it harder for her to learn English, so she was at first hesitant to enroll her kindergartner in dual immersion at the Los Angeles Leadership Academy.


Taina Franke is a parent of two sons, the oldest of whom attends the Goethe International Charter School. She talks about her own father’s struggles with language when his family moved from his native Finland to Germany.