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Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as What's Wrong With Bilingual Education?

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What's Wrong With Bilingual Education?

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If someone had only read news coverage of the Ron Unz initiative that passed resoundingly on June 2 of this year (the so-called "English for the Children" California ballot proposition which all but mandates the end of bilingual education), one would think that bilingual education was an educationally unsound concept doomed to failure. Yet just in the last few months, three well-regarded reports were released that give a resounding educationally based endorsement of bilingual education.

The first was "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children" by the National Research Council, a respected organization with unassailable research standards that is not given to unfounded pronouncements. In the section on literacy, the NRC's carefully worded finding on bilingual education states:

"Schools have the responsibility to accommodate the linguistic needs of students with limited proficiency in English. ... These children should be taught how to read in their native language while acquiring proficiency in spoken English, and then subsequently taught to extend their skills to reading in English."

Another recently released NRC study, "Educating Language-Minority Children," conducted in conjunction with the National Institute of Medicine, found:

"Bilingualism, far from impeding the child's overall cognitive or linguistic development, leads to positive growth in these areas. Programs whose goals are to promote bilingualism should do so without fear of negative consequences. English-language learners who develop their native-language proficiency do not compromise their acquisition of English."

Even more dramatic was the report from Jay P. Greene of the University of Texas at Austin, who did a meta-analysis of all the research done on bilingual education. Mr. Greene is not an educator and therefore has neither a predetermined agenda nor any claims to expertise on the subject. He is, however, an expert in the field of ensuring statistical and methodological validity in research. Using rigorous standards, Mr. Greene found that the research evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of bilingual education as the best way to educate limited-English-proficient, or LEP, children.

These three reports, taken together, should end any question about the effectiveness and worth of bilingual education, both as an educational strategy and as the best way to make sure that proficiency in English is achieved. But anybody who believes that this will end the debate is either uninformed, naive, or both.

Although I have been an observer of and a participant in this debate for years, it took me a long time to understand why there is so much passion and so little rational discussion on this issue. What I realized is that while I and other proponents of bilingual education were talking about education, others were really talking about language policy.

And while education philosophy is hardly emotion-free, language policy and practice affects us in a very personal way. It gets at the core of the kind of society we want or are likely to have. And since the debate on bilingual education should now be over, let us then have a discussion on language.

The debate over language has at least three aspects to it: language as a problem, language as a right, and language as a resource and/or a reality. For many years, educators saw language--or rather any language other than English as the primary or only language spoken by children attending school--as a problem. I use the term "problem" rather than challenge deliberately. It was not simply a question of the practicality of adding English to whatever language the child brought to the class to assure a common means of communication. Rather, it was a question of instilling in immigrant children, so far as it can be done, the objective of "absolute forgetfulness of all obligations, or connections with other countries because of descent or birth," as the superintendent of schools in New York City noted in 1918.

Contradiction exists because the debate over bilingualism has been about language policy and not about education.

Therefore, any language other than English was neither positive nor benign. It was a "problem" to be washed away, and led to a process which obliterated that other language because it represented a threat to the nation, or at least, to those who did not understand that language. And if the child failed to keep up with his or her peers, so be it; there were always factory and field jobs that did not require literacy but only the ability to understand the verbal commands of their bosses. At a time when universal literacy was only a dream even for native-born Americans and when there were a plentiful number of union factory jobs that allowed a hard-working person with drive and determination the opportunity to work, buy a home, and send his and her kids to college, this might have made some sense. It was the process by which millions of what we now call "white ethnics" assimilated into this society, and the process became a source of pride to them.

For others, particularly Native Americans and Hispanics whose roots in this country predated the British, the trade-off was not perceived to be so equitable. To those who had not gone through the psychological experience of crossing an ocean and leaving family and other ties behind them for greater opportunities, the idea of having to give up something so personal and so defining as language and culture for a society that did not accept them even when they did speak English, the trade-off was fraudulent and demeaning. Thus, intellectuals, activists, and other leaders from these groups and others reacted by raising the issue of language rights.

There are many ethnic Americans who lament that their ancestors were put through this pressure cooker that passed for a melting pot and that deprived them of their heritage. More vocal and more prominent, however, are Americans, particularly some white ethnic Americans, who are incensed with the idea of language as a "right," particularly if the notion is that this right should be paid for by their taxes. How many times have we heard, "My grandfather came to America not knowing a word of English and nobody helped him," or, "We were taught to learn English and nothing but English was spoken in front of us." Even some Hispanics, who had been forced to give up some of their birth language and heritage, became the staunchest supporters of this notion. Indeed, "contrarians" like the commentators Richard Rodriguez and Linda Chavez have been given far more publicity and coverage than mainstream Latino leaders for embracing this "philosophy." Mr. Rodriguez once went so far as to argue that it is great for non-Latinos to learn and speak Spanish but not Hispanics.

It is precisely folks who equate bilingual education with an effort to preserve, or worse, demand the right to, their own language that are most rabidly against bilingual education. Language as a right, or more precisely a minority language as a right, conjures up images of a Quebec-style divisiveness and the possible Balkanization of the country.

That, of course, is precisely the issue--the tendency to draw analogies that are familiar to us, which in the case of language are overwhelmingly about problems, controversies, and feuds. Even if the analogy does not apply, too many of us believe that it does. After talking to dozens of Canadians familiar with the Quebec separatist movement, I have yet to find one who believes that Hispanics in the United States are remotely like French-speaking Quebecers. For one thing, the Francophone separatists and the hard-line Anglo opponents of French-language rights are both opposed to bilingual education. It is the "One Canada" leadership that promotes bilingualism in the name of unity. But how often do you hear about countries where people speak different languages and enjoy peace and prosperity, as is the case in Switzerland and other countries? Peace and comity do not make the evening news.

Which brings us to a third way of understanding language: language as a powerful national resource. During World War II, America profited enormously from U.S. citizens who spoke other languages well. German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and even Japanese-Americans from our own internment camps served our country honorably and gallantly and were an asset in helping American forces understand the Axis powers. Navajo Indians known as the "code talkers" were assigned to different units to facilitate communications without fear of the enemy breaking the code. In fact, it was the only code not deciphered by the Axis powers.

There exists an enormous contradiction in this country. On the one hand, the National Governors' Association unanimously agreed last year that the United States should make foreign-language acquisition a priority in our schools, given the fact that we are the industrialized world's most linguistically ignorant nation. On the other hand, as a recent Washington Post headline summed it up: "California Rejection a Big Blow to Bilingualism." I believe this contradiction exists because the debate over bilingualism has been about language policy and not about education.

Let me be clear: I believe learning English is a must for every American. If anyone doubts my word, I would ask them to visit any of the 100 or so National Council of La Raza affiliates that provide English-language training to tens of thousands of Latinos each year. But it is equally unconscionable to allow the debate over bilingual education to lead our country into wasting such a valuable natural resource as a population that already speaks a multitude of languages. It is also wrong not to use the best method available to teach LEP children English, which research shows is bilingual education.


Raul Yzaguirre is the president of the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights organization. Education policy analyst Raul Gonzalez assisted in the preparation of this essay.

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Pages 46,72

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  • Read Raul Yzaguirre's biography, from the National Council of La Raza.
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