San Diego sits at a binational crossroads, perfectly positioned to provide bilingual job candidates in a variety of fields. One study called Southern California one of the most linguistically diverse areas of its size in the country.

The potential supply is there. At least one in five students in San Diego County schools speaks a language other than English. So is demand for bilingual employees. Research and local hiring experts both say that other skills being equal, employers overwhelmingly prefer to hire bilingual candidates over candidates who speak only English.

Lourdes Sandoval, news director for Entravision, said bilingual skills are crucial to mining stories in a diverse community so close to the international border. Yet, she still needs to look outside the area to find bilingual journalists.

“It’s not easy,” said Sandoval. “I spend months trying to find (bilingual) people and sometimes I have to hire international candidates.”

Employers, language experts and teachers point to one root cause: a public education system that restricted bilingual education for the past 18 years.

In 1998, voters passed Proposition 227, a ballot measure that restricted bilingual education in California and relegated the vast majority of students to English-only schools. Last November, voters passed Proposition 58, which lifted those restrictions and made it easier for school districts to open bilingual programs.

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Experts like Cristina Alfaro, chair for the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education at SDSU, believe Proposition 58 will lead to long-term improvements for English-learners. In the meantime, however, the state must grapple with the outcomes of a public education system that hasn’t prioritized bilingual education.

“Right now, these students are still products of Prop. 227,” Alfaro said.

The central challenge of educating English-learners is how to teach language and academic content, like math and science, at the same time. Focus solely on English, and students fall behind their peers in other academic areas. Focus solely on the academic content, and students won’t have the language to process the material.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who funded and drove 1998’s Prop. 227 campaign, argues the English-only model is the most effective way to teach students language.

But recent research, including a 2014 study, has shown students who attend bilingual programs generally catch up to their peers in English-only programs by the time they leave fifth grade and often go on to outperform their counterparts.

Bilingual programs benefit both English-learners and native English-speakers. Last year, about 85 percent of the students who attended Sherman Elementary, a dual-language school in Sherman Heights, could read, write and speak in two languages by the time they left fifth grade.

But even if students leave elementary school literate in two languages, progress will stall if they don’t have access to strong bilingual programs in middle and high school, said Alfaro. Currently, only two school districts in the county offer students a strong bilingual pathway from grade school to high school.

Growing bilingual pathways could also help English-learners graduate and get ready for college. In 2015, about 17 percent of California’s English-learners dropped out of school – a higher dropout rate than students with disabilities.

Many former English-learners say they felt a need to leave behind their native language in order to find success in school. That’s resulted in what Alfaro calls “language shame”: Spanish might be a student’s first language, but because they don’t use it in school, they’re less likely to have the confidence or the skills to speak, read or write it at a professional level later in life.

Bey-Ling Sha, director of SDSU’s journalism school, has seen language shame first-hand.

In 2014, she created a bilingual journalism course to help prepare students to cover increasingly diverse communities. News organizations like Entravision, Azteca America and inewsource quickly expressed interest in working with students after they left the class.

The only problem – only six students enrolled.

When Sha asked students why they didn’t come, a pattern emerged: Some students, who grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school, could speak the language but couldn’t read or write it. Others could understand Spanish, but felt insecure speaking it.

Alfaro sees the same pattern in the teaching candidates she works with.

“At the middle and high school levels, we don’t have enough bilingual teachers that have a high-level, academic language they can pass onto students. Not enough emphasis has been placed on building that high-caliber Spanish. We’re all products of the system that has never valued bilingual education,” Alfaro said.

And as California school districts face a looming teacher shortage, the need for bilingual teachers is even more acute.

Proposition 58 will make it easier to open bilingual programs, which Alfaro believes will lead to improved outcomes for English-learners in the long run. In the meantime, however, Alfaro said universities will have to step up to help students professionalize their language skills – similar to the bilingual journalism initiative at SDSU.

And the ability to speak, read and write in multiple languages will only make students more marketable to employers.

Maxine Suka, who helps train and place job candidates as director of workforce operations at San Diego Metro Career Centers, said employers overwhelming prefer to hire bilingual candidates even when the job requirements don’t specifically call for it.

“San Diego is a melting pot,” said Suka. “And what we see with employers is that they prefer bilingual candidates because they can relate to the clients and customers they’re serving. And it’s needed more now than ever.”

Jobs data from the last 12 months show that employers in California search for bilingual job candidates more often than any other state – twice as often as Texas, the next closest state.

While city leaders like Mayor Kevin Faulconer promote the benefits of a binational economy, rarely is the importance of actually speaking Spanish and the opportunities it offers students discussed.

It’s the economic argument that Alfaro said resonates most with parents.

For some Latino families, there’s still a stigma that bilingual education will hurt their children’s ability to learn English. But when Alfaro tells parents that bilingual programs are popular in middle- and upper-class communities, the skepticism drops away.

“They think: ‘Wait a minute, what am I missing?’ Then they get excited. They realize it would also be good for their culture and their language. They realize it’s a strength,” Alfaro said in January.

The message is landing. Minerva Espejo, a native Spanish-speaker, is one of them. As a student at Hoover High, Espejo experienced firsthand how schools struggle to prepare English-learners for college or careers.

That’s why she sought bilingual options for her children. They landed at Sherman Elementary, and she’s glad.

“I want my children to be able to do business with people who talk different languages and to understand how to communicate properly in a business setting,” Espejo said. “I want them to express their thoughts and ideas freely without a language barrier.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Bey-Ling Sha’s title and the year in which she started a bilingual journalism class.

    This article relates to: Corrections, Economy, Education, English-Learners

    Gerald Sodomka
    Gerald Sodomka

    There are many people in Tijuana who speak excellent English at the professional level.  They were educated in private bilingual schools, not public schools.  Wealthier families can afford to do this.  Prop. 227 was approved in California because bilingual education was failing.  Too many students from non-English speaking homes were not learning enough English to transition to 100% English classes.

    I have a teaching credential with a bilingual certificate in Spanish, but I left teaching decades ago.  I learned Spanish the hard way by attending classes as aaf young adult and working in Mexico.  Public schools will only be able to afford to educate bilingually a small number of students, and even then mostly at the primary grade level.  To continue through secondary school, and even at the university levels, gets very expansive.  It requires an especially dedicated student with an interest in a specialty field and a foreign language.

    The old adage of "use it or lose it" comes into play.  The young mind absorbs a new language quickly, but after the teenage years the ability diminishes rapidly.  This means the language learning has to be continuous into the adult years and refreshed throughout the one's career.       

    Carol Skiljan
    Carol Skiljan subscribermember

    "Employers, language experts and teachers point to one root cause for the disconnect: a public education system that has restricted bilingual education for the past 18 years."  Seriously? Blame this on the education system? Please edit your headline to reflect the real culprits.

    In 1998 CA voters approved prop 227 which did away with bilingual, dual immersion, etc. education. Education experts in language acquisition were ignored and ridiculed all so non-educator Ron Unz and other racists would not have to suffer or feel threatened when they hear foreign languages spoken around them. School districts had no choice in the matter.

    It is criminal that for 18 years the citizens of CA allowed certain groups of students to have their native language literacy skills shamed and erased in the name of English only instruction. Particularly since research now shows the benefits of bilingualism:  "A superior ability to concentrate, solve problems and focus, better mental flexibility and multitasking skills are, of course, valuable in everyday life. But perhaps the most exciting benefit of bilingualism occurs in ageing, when executive function typically declines: bilingualism seems to protect against dementia."     

    CA now finds itself enlightened about bilingualism and without enough educators fluent in languages other than English. We did this to ourselves and the rest of the world laughs.  

    bcat subscriber

    It would be interesting to look at a history of the U.S. in terms of multi-lingual cultures.

    NYC, Chicago, and other urban centers over the decades (centuries) have had multi-lingual communities.  How does NYC (nations largest public school district) handle multi-lingual education?  How does LAUSD handle this?

    Bear in mind, LAUSD is larger than the next (x5) districts in California.  I believe NY public school district is a factor of (x10) larger than LAUSD.  If ultra-large districts don't have the "economy" of scale to implement teaching in several languages, then how does SDUSD have a chance?

    Given the shortage of even Spanish / English teachers at SDUSD, how can SDUSD address teaching in Spanish?  Why aren't Spanish speaking immigrants, some of which have been in the US for decades, encouraging their children to become Spanish / English teachers?

    This country used to be German / English speaking when it was founded.  The German language fell by the wayside.  No other language has come close to a second language other than Spanish.  Is the transition to bi-lingual for U.S. possible?  Have there been bi-lingual cities in U.S. history that have taught in two languages?  After +200 years of U.S. history, is San Diego really the first to be successful at this?  Why now as opposed to 10, 25, 50, 100, 200 yrs ago?

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    I'm not sure Public Education is the answer to providing future skilled employees. Graduating bilingual kids with 6th grade level reading, writing and math skills doesn't seem like a great benefit to local employers.