Taking a Deeper Look on the U.S. Bilingual Education


Hybernasi.com –Pendidikan. Unless you’ve been comatose for the past decade, you are probably aware that the demographics of the public schools in the United States are changing, and many schools today have sizeable populations of kids who do not speak English as their first language.

Taking a Deeper Look on the U.S. Bilingual Education

As a society, we have to decide how to best serve both these children and national interests.

Note that I do not say ‘educators must decide’, because this is not a matter that is restricted to what happens in the schools, but one which has its roots in wider societal values and consequences in everyday interactions.  I do not mean to downplay the importance of educators, and researchers on education, by saying this; instead, I mean to broaden the responsibility to include all citizens.

So, let’s review the various options we have when we have children in public schools in the U.S. who do not speak English.


Sink or Swim

What often happens is that we hope that they will quickly assimilate, learn English, adopt the ways of the mainstream, and become indistinguishable from the rest of the kids.  We all know people like this; they arrived in the United States from Korea or Honduras or Russia, speaking little or no English, at the age of eight or twelve or fifteen.

They learned English quickly, graduated from high school, and went on to college. Today you would never guess, from accent or demeanor, that they had not always lived in the U.S.

But there are two things we should recognize.


First, They are Exceptions

Studies have shown that non-English-speaking children who are simply put into mainstream classrooms are far less likely to achieve academic success than those who have the benefit of some sort of specially designed program (see here).

Often at least part of the secret to their success is that they had good literacy skills in their first (non-English) language when they arrived in the U.S. and had substantial support in their first years of schooling in English. These latter aspects are often related to socio-economic class –but kids whose own parents are not well-educated are less likely to have had access to high quality education in their home country, and are less likely to have parents who can help them with their schoolwork once they have emigrated to the U.S.

So, the bottom line: tossing non-English speaking kids into a mainstream classroom with no additional support for learning English might work for some, but is a practice which discriminates against working class kids.


Second, a Cost of Assimilation

The second thing we should recognize about these gifted people who have excelled with no institutional support is that there is a cost to assimilation.

Sometimes that cost is loss of the first language. Even if a child continues to speak their first language, they may lose literacy in that language, which means that their proficiency in their first language is of limited value on the job market. This devaluation in potential economic value is not the only value lost; in this highly literate society, people who have limited literacy skills in a language often have a sense of inadequacy about their overall performance in that language, leading to decreased use of the language…and this is part of the spiral of assimilation.

And aside from loss of linguistic competence, the cost of assimilation may be a sense of  alienation from other speakers of that language that are not as integrated into the mainstream culture, including family members, or feeling that one has lost a connection to their first culture.

Many people today who are opposed to bilingual education talk about their grandparents, and how they came to this country, learned English and didn’t teach their children Polish/German/Italian, etc., so why do these Hispanics (or these Chinese, etc.) need bilingual education? My response to that is yes, they lost their ancestral languages and assimilated; but was that a good thing? Isn’t it possible to be a good American (whatever that may be) and also a bilingual?

This method — often called ‘submersion’ or the ‘sink or swim’ method of educating English Language Learners — is not a fair or effective strategy, and loss of the first language is not necessary for integration into U.S. society.


Transitional Bilingualism

So if we accept that we must offer some sort of support for English Learners in the public schools, what often happens is that children are offered English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction. Depending on how this is done, this is often the best, and only option; if there are children who speak Spanish, Mandarin, Guajarati and Arabic in the school district, bilingual education is clearly not an option. ESL instruction in these cases should be geared toward supporting the children in their acquisition of English and completion of assignments in other courses, but participation in ESL instruction should not prevent them from being able to participate in AP or Honors courses.

But in some communities, there IS a concentration of English Language Learners who all speak the same first language.  I will refer to that language as a ‘minority language’; although immigrant languages are often majority languages in other countries, they are spoken by a minority in the U.S. context.

One of the common approaches to bilingual education is what’s called “transitional bilingual education”.  In this approach, all of the speakers of the minority language are put together and taught in both the minority language and English — the minority language, their first language, so that they can continue to do grade-level work, and English so that they can learn the majority language and transition into mainstream (English-speaking) classrooms.

In these programs, the institutional goal is transition, not maintenance of two languages. Often the program is structured to get the children into mainstream classrooms as quickly as possible — after one or two years of bilingual education.

And what’s wrong with that, you may ask?

What’s wrong with “transitional education” is twofold, each fold with a parallel to the problems I discussed with the sink-or-swim strategy.


First, It isn’t very Effective

All studies of bilingual education show that transitional programs are less effective than maintenance programs (see, for example, this discussion of a longitudinal study) and research on literacy acquisition indicates that it takes up to six years to acquire academic competence in a second language.

Transitional education is also not very effective in terms of social integration.  Think about it; the kids are isolated in classrooms with other kids of immigrant background; so who are they learning English from?  The one aspect of the sink-or-swim approach which makes sense is the integration of minority language speaking children into an English language environment — we know kids learn from other kids, so it’s important for them to have contact with their English-speaking peers.

Transitional bilingual education thus really fulfills none of the goals we set for bilingual education; it isn’t an effective way of having the children become competent students in English, and it isn’t effective at all in having the children become competent social beings in English.


Second, Minority Language

The second problem with transitional bilingual education is that it sends the message that the minority language is not valuable, and speaking it marks you as a second class citizen. If the goal is to learn English, the kids very quickly understand that means that a parallel goal is to lose the minority language.  So again we are confronted with the question: why do we not want to create bilingual U.S. citizens?

There is one type of bilingual education program which does exactly that.

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