Bilingual education is a “hot” issue in California, so much so that Pro. 227 in 1998 put the issue of bi-lingual education up to the voters. The so-called Umz Initiative against bi-lingual education passed by a margin of 61% to 39%. However, there continue to be those who believe it is necessary, at least temporarily, to bring foreign-born students up to speed, while the opponents claim that English should be the national language, and until children are proficient in English, their ability to drop back to speaking another language hinders the overall learning process. These people are not against education for all, but insist that the education be in English. This would then mean some sort of remedial schools or classrooms where foreign-language students would be taught English before they become part of the rest of the school’s curriculum. Nevertheless, given the influx of immigrants whose children are of school age but speak little or no English, education cannot be denied to them. Bilingual education continues to be necessary so children can learn, regardless of the language they speak at home or with which they grew up.
Part of the problem both with bilingual education and English-as-a-second-language instruction in the United States lies in our unwillingness to treat English for non-speakers as an academic subject. Schools often treat (limited-English-proficient) students as a…group of helpless individuals, in need of a warm, fuzzy environment created by caring or undemanding teachers… Bilingual Education should be repaired, not replaced. Bilingual programs would do well to provide long periods of total English immersion as well as opportunities to interact with native speakers. Both bilingual and immersion programs should be held to accountability standards.
While we tend to think of bilingual education as mostly Hispanic-English, there are many Asian students who need to be taught proper English before continuing their education. This is true in primary, secondary, as well as college-level schools. As one “anonymous) teacher points out: “I have had 32 different languages spoken in my classroom over a 25-year period. Eighty-four languages are spoken in our district.” (Anon 1998 1) The upshot for most teachers, frustrated by bureaucracy is to “just teach in the way you know is effective.” (Anon 1998 4) That means, reaching children in whatever language makes them want to, and able to study.
The critics of bilingual education are, for the most part, politically conservatives. They feel, to begin with, that part of the confusion around bilingual education programs is their different meanings in different states. Add to that the fact that, critics claim, there is no consensus as to what kind of bilingual education is most successful.
One of the more sophisticated bilingual critics wrote in the New York TIMES: “Liberal supporters of ‘bilingual education’ mean well.,…It hasn’t worked. The kids could have told them at the start that if you don’t speak English in school, you speak the language you hear at home. And the longer it takes you to become fluent in the American tongue, the less likely the student will be to excel in academic studies…” (Safire 1998 1)
The argument also provides statistics. In Inglewood CA, “reading scores improved district wide last spring…When the state issued its first Academic Performance Index last month, Bennett-Kew (Elementary School) earned a 10 out of 10- the highest possible score…” (Gumz 2000 1)
Another survey showed that “Reading scores for the 2nd grade immigrant students in Prop 227 compliant programs were at the 35th percentile, while those in bilingual programs were at the 19th percentile. Math scores were at the 43rd percentile for Prop. 227 programs but at the 30th percentile for bilingual programs.” (Annis 2000 1) Refutstion:
No one is surely suggesting that non-English speaking students, or those with limited English knowledge should go through the entire 12 years of elementary and secondary schooling MAINLY in their original language. The ideal means of bi-lingual education should be a transitional one: Teach courses in native languages and provide competent bilingual or native-speaking teachers who can give the students the opportunity to move to English only, even if it is at the student’s own pace. This “Transitional bilingual education” provides intensive English-language instruction, but students get some portion of their academic instruction in their native language. The goal is to prepare these students for mainstream classes in English without letting them fall behind in subject areas. In theory, students transition out of these programs within several months.
Critics of bilingual education believe that non-English speaking students are not sufficiently mastering the English language, and as a result, low test scores prove that education is failing them in both their native as well as their second language.
There is no doubt that bilingual education has to become a pillar for the education of foreign-born students, so they can become useful citizens, and pursue careers for which their minds and intelligence can prepare them. Let’s not forget that with the globalization of business, bilingual or multi-lingual speakers are much in demand. English may be our common language, but it should not be considered THE “national language.
Annis, S.: “Immigrant Students in Prop. 227 English Classes Far Outperform Those in Bilingual Education”
Gumz, J.: School excels after dropping bilingual education” Santa Cruz Sentinel Feb 9, 2000
Safire, W.: “Big Changes in California may signal shifts elsewhere” New York TIMES, May 16, 1998
Anonymous: “My Odyssey through Bilingual Education” Hedgehog Review Editorial (1998) www.hedgehog-review.com/about.html