An Interview with Steve Leveen, Author of America’s Bilingual Century: How Americans Are Giving the Gift of Bilingualism to Themselves, Their Loved Ones, and Their Country
Steve Leveen has been a recognizable name in the dual language field due to his successful podcast, America the Bilingual, and now has increased his notoriety with the release of his book, America’s Bilingual Century: How Americans are giving the gift of bilingualism to themselves, their loved ones, and their country.We sat down with him to hear what drives him, his inspiration for promoting the bilingual field, and his new book.
DLS: In your book, you devote Part One to how adults can become bilingual (as you are doing), and Part Two to how parents can raise bilingual children. Are there any practices inspired by dual language education that work as well for adults as for kids?
Steve: The idea of dual language programs is not so much to teach the language, but to teach through the language. Rather than something to learn, a new language is something to learn with. Likewise for adults, years out of school, they can learn something new in their adopted language–for example, taking a cooking class in Italian, or going for a week-long hike in France, conducted in French.
DLS: In your research, were there aspects of dual language education benefits that surprised you?
Steve: Yes, the operational challenges. Every program director is challenged with finding enough qualified teachers, an optimum balance of students, and appropriate course materials.
DLS: Most advocates of dual language education are teachers, school administrators, parents of school-age children, or public officials. You are none of these, but clearly a champion. Do you feel you can reach readers who might not otherwise be aware of the value of dual language schools?
Steve: I sure hope so! Americans are generally unaware of how many of our fellow Americans are already bilingual, and equally unaware that all the ingredients are now in place for bilingualism to flourish in America. To me it seems like our country is ready for a new narrative: English is what unites us; our other languages are what define and strengthen us.
DLS: You visited all different kinds of dual language schools as part of your research—private, public, a Cherokee school. What were common threads that you found?
Steve: The common threads were two: Wow, this really works! It’s the “two-for-one” system, as one principal told me. We graduate students better overall, including in English, and bonus: they have serious skills in another language, too. The second common thread is that demand exceeds supply. Parents are frustrated.
DLS: You have a third section in your book that addresses a dozen myths about bilingualism in America. One of these chapters tackles the idea that there are more important things than language that today’s students need to learn. Why did you decide this was a myth?
Steve: It’s a false choice. If you find yourself thinking, “Well, Spanish would be nice but STEM is more important,” you’re thinking only of conventional language classes. While “conventional” classes have an important role in providing a head start to students, to achieve high competence, students learn through the language—for example, learning math through Mandarin, and social studies through Spanish.
DLS: Considering the pandemic and how distance learning posed setbacks, how do you think we can combat some who say dual language will be too difficult to continue with?
Steve: I agree with Fabrice Jaumont, who has helped many parents kick-start dual language schools: the future of education is in two languages. And it’s not just in the US but worldwide. I also see it as a moral issue. Knowing how good bilingualism is for humans throughout their lifespans, and knowing how to design schools to graduate bilingualism, don’t we have a responsibility to do it? And given how students perform better in all subjects when they’re in a dual language learning environment, this may help students bounce back more quickly from any setbacks they’ve experienced with distance learning.