In recent years, much attention has been drawn to the bilingual education debate. Immigration is booming, and along with it the number of non-English-speaking children entering public schools. According to Thomas and Collier, "Language-minority students are predicted to account for about 40 percent of the school-age population by the 2030’s" (5). Bilingual programs in many areas have sparked a heated controversy, with many people claiming that non-English-speaking children, most notably Hispanics, are being disadvantaged by programs that simply don’t work.
Many people assume that a lack of English comprehension poses obstacles to normal scholastic progress. Others argue that children are being hindered more by attempts to help them learn English, than by their lack of English ability. The worst arguments against bilingual education may be ethnocentric, or even racist, in nature, but many other arguments have a practical and common-sense sound to them and are not easy to dismiss.
For those who have children’s best interests at heart, the opponents can be divided roughly into two camps: a) those who favor English-only instruction so that children are not hindered in their opportunities later in life, and b) those who favor a program that maintains the cultural heritage and language of the non-English community.
Those debating both the problems and merits of bilingual education programs often seem to forget that the primary concern of all schools should be to make sure that students are succeeding in their coursework. Schools are responsible for much more than teaching English and preserving cultural heritage (many question whether schools should have either responsibility). The question is how to teach the standard curriculum satisfactorily to non-English-speaking children entering schools today, so that they do not fall behind their English-speaking peers. More research needs to be done with this goal in mind, for at present, there does not seem to be enough data to conclude that any of the current education models are the best.
Today, there are many models of bilingual education. The most popular and best known are the transitional and ESL models, what Thomas and Collier refer to as "remedial" programs (2). Transitional refers to programs where educating begins in the native language, but the primary focus is to move children into classes where all educating is done in English. In transitional programs, children are taught in their native language by bilingual teachers, and given special training in English. After about 3 years, all instruction is done in English. In the ESL program children are removed from ordinary classes in order to receive special instruction in English. Children with many different backgrounds are put together in one classroom with teachers who are trained to teach English as a foreign language. The teachers are not usually bilingual. Like the transitional model, children are shifted into English-only schooling after about 3 years. (Gross Lecture)
There are several problems with these remedial models. First of all, the focus is on getting kids to learn English as quickly as possible, with the native language being used in the interim as a necessary evil, or not at all. An essentially assimilationist model, many have accused these programs of practicing cultural genocide; in other words, children are not encouraged to think of their primary language as being as correct, beautiful, and expressive as English, and they are given no education in their native culture.
Besides ethical questionability, both models have functional problems, too. In ESL, children are removed from ordinary classrooms, leaving them stigmatized and reducing their opportunities to mingle with English-speaking children (an essential component in attaining English fluency). Also, as Thomas and Collier explain, "In the remedial program, English learners receive less access to the standard grade-level curriculum," so non-English-speaking children wind up lagging behind their peers (2). Lastly, ample linguistic evidence suggests that children do not acquire language the same way that adults do (Payne Lecture). The models used to teach English as a foreign language to adults may not be as appropriate for children. In other words, children may acquire English better by simply hearing it used to teach subjects in the classroom, than by analytical training.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the enrichment model. In this design, the children are taught in two languages simultaneously, and both native and non-native English speakers are included (Gross Lecture). Thomas and Collier’s article "Two Languages are Better Than One" gives a good example of a successful 50-50 model, the one probably most appropriate for the United States. In this model, both languages are given equal weight in instruction. For example, teachers may switch between languages every hour, or when moving to a different subject area. But, the instruction is always mutually exclusive, so that what is said in one language is not repeated in the other. The students converse in both languages, acting as peer models for each other. (Thomas & Collier 3-4) Some enrichment models stop after a few years – an ideal one would continue through the twelfth grade.
The advantages of the enrichment model are countless. Truly fluent bilingualism is an invaluable ability, especially in our increasingly global market economy. The enrichment model maintains and supports the native language, and teaches children from both the non-English-speaking community and the English-speaking community to view the world from more than one perspective. Some studies have even shown that bilingualism may have positive affects on intelligence and cognitive maturity, though the causal relationship is unclear (Latham 79,80).
All of this sounds very nice, but there is, of course, a catch. The enrichment model is not feasible for every community and may not be desirable either. It can be costly to implement, and finding bilingual instructors is not always easy. Enlisting the help of the community is a necessity in any successful bilingual program, but community members are not always willing to help.
In addition, one study by D’Acierno found that bilingual education programs may have negative effects on cognitive ability if they are not supported by the student’s family, because of the distress such a situation can generate (cited in Latham 79). Lastly, Rothstein concludes that there is insufficient data to prove that any type of bilingual program is better at educating than the traditional immersion model (or visa versa) (7).
The idea behind the immersion model is that children will just pick up the language automatically, just as they learned their first language. The motto is "sink or swim," and the assumption is that most students will swim. Supporters of immersion have plenty of good arguments going for them. For one, there are no special teachers or materials, so it is usually less costly. Teaching only in English means that teachers don’t have to worry about what first language their students speak. After all, not every school is composed entirely of English- and Spanish-speaking children; most schools probably have a mix of children from various backgrounds. Putting all the children in the same classroom (theoretically) eliminates the problem of ostracization. Immersion supporters either feel that English fluency and assimilation is more important than preserving cultural heritage, or they view preservation of other languages as separatist and anti-American.
Supporters of the immersion model often believe in the myth that immersion has worked fine in the past; they point to previous waves of immigration, claiming that what was good enough for Grandpa is good enough for today’s kids. As Richard Rothstein explains in "Bilingual Education: the Controversy": "During the last great wave of immigration, from 1880 to 1915, very few Americans succeeded in school, immigrants least of all." This fact makes it difficult to compare today’s statistics with those of previous generations. Rothstein goes on to point out that in 1931, only 11% of Italian high school students made it to graduation, whereas 40% was the average for all students. As Rothstein puts it: "This was a much bigger native/immigrant gap than we have today." (2)
Educators in second languages long ago realized that for someone to really learn a language, the best way is to be totally immersed in it. Any opportunity to use one’s first language is likely to be taken advantage of, unless a person is highly motivated to learn. With total immersion, the individual has no choice but to focus all of their attention on the new language.
But total English immersion is an ideal that rarely, if ever, happens for non-English-speaking children. Most likely they will continue to speak their first language with friends and family members, depending on the size of their minority language community. Therefore, use of only English in one aspect of a child’s life – school – does not in any way constitute total immersion.
Although one of the goals of public education in this country is to make sure that students learn English, schools are responsible for teaching a lot more than that. Schools must teach history, science, math, art, reading, writing, etc. If instruction takes place in a language unfamiliar to the student, it stands to reason that learning will be slower going, unless some other provisions are made. For this reason, educators must be sure that students are progressing normally in their studies. It may be that students who are having trouble with English will require additional time and training, but it must be in addition to normal studies, and not at the expense of them.
The most appropriate way to achieve this goal is by no means self-evident. Even today, language acquisition is poorly understood in both its primary and secondary forms. Factors such as socioeconomic status, cultural values, parental involvement, and individual characteristics seem to have an impact on the success of non-English speaking children in our school systems, but the relationships are not fully understood (Rothstein; Thomas & Collier).
Perhaps the only viable solution at present is to continue educating the public, politicians, and educators on aspects of the issue that are clearly understood, and focus more effort on research and collecting better data. But even if one educational method is found to work better, on average, than others, it should be left ultimately up to the parents and community members to decide which road to take. As it does not make sense to force people to assimilate, it also makes no sense to force them to maintain their language in schools if that is not something they wish to do.
At the very least, educators need to be sensitive to the issue and to the potential problems of educating non-English-speaking children. However, every effort should be made to avoid sacrificing the curriculum, for the goal of any educational program should always be to educate - not just instruction in the English language, but knowledge in general. No student should be disadvantaged by his or her language.
Gross, Joan. Lecture. Anthropology 451, Oregon State University, Winter 1999.
Latham, Andrew S. "The Advantages of Bilingualism." Education Leadership 56 (1998): 79.
Payne, Tom. Lecture. Anthropology 350, Oregon State University, Fall 1998.
Rothstein, Richard. "Bilingual Education: the Controversy." Phi Delta Kappan 79 (1998): 672.
Thomas, Wayne P., and Virginia P. Collier. "Two Languages Are Better Than One." Educational Leadership 55 (1997): 23.