What's Wrong With Bilingual Education?

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If bilingual education has been a failure in the United States, it is not because of its bilingual nature. A number of foreign countries have done well with bilingual or multilingual education. The Friesians of Holland receive their elementary education in both Friesian and Flemish. That simply means that by the end of high school they will be expected to have mastered four languages instead of three (Flemish, English, and German) like other Netherlanders. Citizens of Luxembourg are educated in their native language, plus French and German. Lebanese schools prepare many students to speak, read, write, and do business in both Arabic and French. Even the supposedly homogeneous Japanese have a form of bilingual education in which dialect-speaking Japanese children receive their earliest years of education from teachers who understand their dialect.

The political right has blamed the bilingual education establishment for poor academic performance by Hispanic students. The political left has blamed prejudice and poverty. While there may be some truth in both allegations, there are other important factors that have not been adequately addressed. 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 nonspeakers as an academic subject. Although truly limited-English-proficient, or LEP, students are children in need of instruction in the English language, schools often treat them as members of a social caste, a group of helpless individuals in need of a warm, fuzzy environment created by caring but undemanding teachers. The polyglot Dutch see Friesian children as students who need early instruction in two languages. In addition, their polyglot school administrators and policymakers understand the process of second-language learning. Monolingual American educators, however, are likely to see immigrant children merely as a disadvantaged group that must be held to a lesser standard.

Placement in bilingual or ESL classes is not always strictly according to language ability. In some schools on the U.S.-Mexican border, bilingualism is the norm. Bilingual students are not, however, necessarily limited-English-proficient. Many are English dominant, and others are fully proficient in both languages. In some such schools, bright, well-behaved bilingual students get placed in regular education, while their slower or more troublesome peers find their ways into bilingual classes. Farther from the border, even monolingual English-speaking students with Hispanic surnames may find themselves with the LEP label. I have taught a number of students who were suddenly found to be limited-English-proficient after failing a semester or creating a major disruption in a regular education class.

Schools have benefited by artificially inflating their numbers of limited-English-proficient students. Low test scores can be explained away by pointing to a high number of LEP students, so applying the LEP label to low-performing students, even those who are English dominant, can make a school appear statistically better than it really is. In some places, LEP students can even be exempted from standardized testing. There are supposedly safeguards to prevent students from being mislabeled as limited-English-proficient, but, unfortunately, these safeguards are weakly enforced and many students are not appropriately placed. Because of this abuse of the system, bilingual classes sometimes become holding pens for poorly performing students.

American schools aren't particularly good places to learn languages. Few American students of foreign languages (other than English) actually master them, at least not in school. Immigrant children tend to pick up English eventually, but not at a speed that would impress European educators. ESL and immersion programs have not necessarily been more successful than bilingual education. There have been pockets of success for each method, but none stands head and shoulders above the others. It is unfortunate that so many educators and politicians glorify one approach while demonizing the others. In reality, all three are valid and can work if, and only if, they are well implemented.

Immersion, the solution being touted by conservative educators, will not solve all of the problems of LEP students. The American public schools of years past, when non-English-speaking children sank or swam, yielded mixed results. Although some immersed students did quite well, others, unable to speak English and forbidden to speak anything else, went mute daily from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Teachers would "modify" for these students by allowing them to mindlessly copy phrases from textbook to worksheet or to review for tests with "study sheets" that were in reality copies of upcoming tests with the answers filled in. They eventually absorbed enough English to communicate, but missed out on academics. Thanks to grade adjustment and social promotion, such students managed to get through school conversant in English but barely literate in any language. It was the failings of immersion education that gave rise to bilingual education.

Schools have benefited by artificially inflating their numbers of limited-English-proficient students

Immersion works well for some students, and needs to be at least a large part of the program for all. Older students with a grasp of basic English and the willingness to pore over their homework with dictionaries and grammar books benefit from such an approach, especially if they have access to someone who can explain and clarify difficult English concepts. The greater the ratio of native speakers to nonspeakers, the more appropriate immersion becomes. One teacher cannot truly immerse 30 students. When a tiny handful of nonspeakers is spread throughout a sea of English speakers, every activity becomes an English lesson. However, in communities in which most people speak the child's native language, opportunities to practice English in true one-on-one conversations are few.

Younger students respond to immersion better than older ones, especially if a large number of native speakers surround the LEP child, but immersion of very young students can create a problem with reading. Children cannot read beyond their vocabularies, so those who are taught to read a language that they do not speak will not progress well.

If there is true immersion, the trade-off, more oral English but less reading, may be reasonable as long as the schools understand the situation and allow for more intensive reading instruction when the student is ready. Unfortunately, this is often not the case, and students whose reading has been delayed because of language problems may end up being labeled slow learners or learning-disabled. A major advantage of bilingual education is that it permits students to learn to read at a developmentally appropriate age. These early literacy skills will transfer over to English.

Worse than sink-or-swim, however, is stay-out-of-the-water-until-you-know-you-can-swim. Bilingual education at its worst allows students only very limited contact with spoken English. I once had a beginning ESL class made up of recent immigrants mixed with students from a bilingual program like the one described above. The bilingual students had been in American schools from two to four years, but none had more than a rudimentary command of English. By Christmas, some of the recent immigrants were outperforming the ex-bilingual education students in both oral English and academics. Obviously, these students had been cheated out of both contact with and instruction in English. A good bilingual teacher realizes that a student needs thousands of hours of contact with a second language in order to become fluent. Bilingual programs that do not recognize this deserve to be eliminated.

It is never a good idea for educators to stand on dogma. Bilingual education and immersion need not be mutually exclusive. If an immersion approach is to be used, schools could still provide students with access to out-of-class tutors who could give explanations in the students' native language, or we could imitate the Japanese and allow beginning students to speak to their teachers in their native languages while requiring the teachers to respond in English. One daily period of native-language reading instruction could be offered to 1st and 2nd graders even if the rest of the day is spent in total English immersion.

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. Bilingual education needs to be repaired, but not necessarily replaced. Let us not replace the status quo with less effective programs.

Jerry Jesness is a special education teacher working with bilingual students in Los Fresnos, Texas. He taught English as a second language for 15 years before switching to special education.

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Pages 46, 72

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