Bilingual Education

A child walks into a classroom. He is anxious and excited because it is his first day of school. He sits down, and with his hands folded on his desk, is ready and eager to learn. The teacher walks over to him and asks for his name. The boy says nothing, for he does not understand. The teacher asks him repeatedly for his name, but the only response is confused silence. At this point, the teacher is irritated. The little boy, bewildered, baffled, and uncertain of what to do, begins to cry.

This is not an everyday event. Fortunately, most students who are having problems with the English language are placed in bilingual classes. Bilingual education is the best way to educate children who understand little or no English, but if bilingual education is not protected, then the plight of the poor little boy will become a commonplace predicament.

There tends to be some misunderstanding about what bilingual education is. A. Bruce Gaarder, Chief of the Modern Language Section of the United States Office of Education, gave a definition of bilingual education while giving testimony in support of the Bilingual Education Act. He said that bilingual education is “the use of English and another language . . . as mediums of instruction in the schools . . . the use of language to teach all of the school curriculum” (326). Therefore, contrary to what many believe, it is the teaching of all subjects, not just English.

According to the 1990 census, more than two million children under the age of eighteen were foreign-born. More than three-fourths of them were from countries where English is not a dominant language (Rong and Preissle 35). Furthermore, out of the 5 to 17-year-old range, 37.8% reported having problems speaking English (Rong and Preissle 28).

How are all these children to be helped? Research has shown that English-only classes work only for those whose first language “is valued and supported both at home and in the broader society.” However, the “broader society” wants students to abandon their native tongue and quickly acquire a mastery of the English language (Tollefson 17).

On the other hand, a study conducted by J.D. Ramirez found that students taught primarily in their native language (in this case Spanish) produced the most achievement. Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students that received all or most of their instruction in English were at a higher risk of falling behind and dropping out than children that receive most of their instruction in their native language (Herriman and Burnaby 142).

Michael Herriman and Barbara Burnaby point out that in the 1800’s, the Cherokees had a 90% literacy rate in their native languages. With the use of bilingual materials, the Oklahoma Cherokees had a higher English literacy rate than that of the white population of Arkansas or Texas (Herriman and Burnaby 132). If it worked then, it can work now. However, Americans were so dead-set against multilingualism that they ignored the remarkable progress of the Native Americans in teaching their youth in their own languages (Herriman and Burnaby 131).

Martha Jim�©nez, a legislative policy analyst for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, brings out that before the past twenty-five years or so, children who did not speak English were in a helpless situation. There were no laws to help them learn. They were trapped in English-only classes (243). Much of the opposition toward bilingual education in the early twentieth century was based on the fear that immigrants might not be honorable Americans if they kept their native tongue and culture. This fear was even more evident during times of war (Herriman and Burnaby 134). The has promoted foreign language for political or economic reasons, but turned its back on it at the first sign of trouble (Herriman and Burnaby 123).

The federal government has played a small role as far as funding for bilingual education is concerned. Judicial precedents and legislation have both been influential in developing a policy at the state and local levels (Herriman and Burnaby 141). With the passing of the Bilingual Education Act, Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in 1968, funds for bilingual education were mandated (Herriman and Burnaby 132-133).

Although the is a large nation, it has no language policy. It has no “public institution devoted to language issues broadly defined in the ” (Herriman and Burnaby 122). This is because English is understood to be the dominant language. However, dominant does not necessarily mean only. The United States Department of Education sees bilingual education as “a means to make it possible for linguistically diverse children to achieve to the same challenging academic standards required of all children enrolled in ‘s schools.” Herriman and Burnaby foretell that the fear of multilingualism detracting from patriotic unity could lead to harmful laws that restrict language usage to English (154). Language restrictions could lead to civil disunity rather than peace.

What is society’s assessment of cultural diversity and multilingualism? Many have a view similar to that of Benjamin Franklin about the growing German influence in Pennsylvania. He wrote that “they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious” (19; Herriman and Burnaby 130). There seems to be an unspoken belief that to be an American automatically means speaking English. True, the Constitution is written in English. Nevertheless, it does not specify anything regarding the English language nor the use of any other languages in the (Herriman and Burnaby 129). Carlos Alberto Montaner, a native of who now resides in , points out the hypocrisy of American society. He sheds light on the fact that society wants minority language speakers to learn English quickly so as to benefit the country by being bilingual, but complains when multilingual citizens casually speak in a language other than English (164). It is hoped that those who are not proficient in English will learn it and become productive members of society. Nevertheless, how can they do that if they are only being taught the necessary basic skills in English, a language that they cannot understand?

According to a website of Education Week, critics argue that those who learn English as a second language come out of school with substandard reading skills in both their native language as well as English. Therefore, they support complete English immersion in classrooms. The website further states that research proves that being taught in both the native language as well as in English helps the student to learn English. Supporters of bilingual education point out that it takes more than a couple of years to become proficient in any language, especially one that is as intricate as English. They also point out that there are not enough “well-qualified, fully bilingual teachers” (“Bilingual Education”). Howard A. Jansen, the Student Teacher Coordinator of Grand Valley State University’s School of Education, is an avid supporter of bilingual education. He feels that there is no limit to how long it takes to learn English. He says, “we take it (English) for twelve years.” Jansen feels that if natural-born citizens are given enough time to learn English, then it is only fair that foreign-born citizens should be extended the same privilege as well.

What about the minority language speakers, who are the most deeply affected by what the government and society dictate in regards to bilingual education? Most of them are immigrants. Educational policies toward immigrants affect their success and adaptation to the school systems. If immigrants are moved to regular classes after only one or two semesters in a bilingual class, they are likely to fail (Rong and Preissle 145). They may fail because of uncertainty and a lack of self-esteem building as well as not understanding English.

Since some immigrants are basically dropped into an unfamiliar school setting, many are unprepared for school to begin with. So they will likely fall behind, especially in the subjects of mathematics and science (Rong and Preissle 145). However, this is not the case for Nguyen Nguyen, a fifteen-year-old student who arrived from the previous year. He asserts, “I have to understand in Vietnamese first so I can translate it into English. I learn best this way” (qtd. in Gray 70). If students are taught in bilingual classes instead of being thrust into English-only classes, they are given the opportunity to acquire skills to survive in the best way – by learning them in their own language.

As far as the loyalties of the immigrants go, some may try to resist learning English because it may be viewed as forgetting about one’s native land and culture. They may feel that they are denying themselves. Parents may also resist because, although they want only the best for their children, they may feel that they are losing some of the intimacy with their children because of “language barriers” (Rong and Preissle 43).

Bilingual education is a significant element of the education system in the . With it, children can grow up to become prosperous members of American society and the world. However, if bilingual education is not employed, they will lack the skills to survive in a country that is supposed to be open to cultural and lingual diversity.

Works Cited

“Bilingual Education.” Education Week (1998) n.pag. Online. Internet. 12 Nov. 1998. Available: /biling.htm

Crawford, James, ed. Language Loyalties: A Source Book on the Official English
Controversy. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1992.
Franklin, Benjamin. “The German Language in Pennsylvania.” Crawford 18-19.
Gaarder, A. Bruce. “Teaching in the Mother Tongue.” Crawford 325-329.
Gray, Paul. “Teach Your Children Well.” Time Fall 1993: 68+.
Herriman, Michael, and Barbara Burnaby, eds. Language Policies in English-Dominant Countries. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters, 1996.
Jansen, Howard A. Personal Interview. 18 Nov. 1998.
JimÃ?©nez, Martha. “The Educational Rights of Language-Minority Children.” Crawford 243-251.
Montaner, Carlos Alberto. “Talk English – You Are in the .” Crawford 163- 165.
Rong, Xue Lan, and Judith Preissle. Educating Immigrant Students: What We Need to Know to Meet the Challenges. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 1998.
Tollefson, James W., ed. Power and Inequality in Language Education. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995. . Dept. of Education. Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs. Educating Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students.
Washington, D.C.: GOP, 1995.

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