On Tuesday, February 4, the Duke Immerse GIRI Seminar on Global Domestic Policy traveled to Southwest Elementary School in Durham. Southwest Elementary is noteworthy for its dual-language immersion program, in which teachers instruct their students in both English and Spanish, often oscillating between the two languages within a single sentence or the addition of two numbers.

During a morning of observation across different classrooms and grade levels, the Duke undergraduates studied how bilingualism fosters mental connections: how kindergartners learning rhymes from “Hey Diddle Diddle” realize that rhymes occur in both languages; how first-graders can learn about the frog life cycle entirely in Spanish; and how fourth-grade students can grasp the meaning of “decimeter” by remembering “diez,” the Spanish word for ten. Speaking to the pre-teens, Erica Roberson Phillips, the TA for the Duke course and an educational equity and policy specialist at the Cook Center, said the morning was all about studying “the superpower you have of being bilingual.”

Faculty affiliate and visiting faculty fellow Marta Sánchez explained that, as the Duke students moved to a new classroom for their final observation, even subjects like math are becoming more dependent on language acquisition. Given the increased reliance on word problems, especially in standardized testing, students must possess not only arithmetic skills but also knowledge of the key terms within the context of the sentence. (As such, in typical classrooms those for whom English is a second language have little reprieve, operating at a disadvantage across all subjects.)

The whiplash nature of these classrooms can induce headaches and, even as both teachers and students capably handle it in early February, they often offer the frenetic energy of a high-wire balancing act. But each environment hums with the focus required. A poster at the front of the morning’s final classroom states, “The harder you work, the smarter you get!” And to witness it in-person is, to borrow a word from its neighboring sign listing Palabras Positivas, fantástico.