Monday, May 24, 2010

Opponents of Bilingual Education

In my experience in listening to their arguments, English-only proponents who bash bilingual education are often not well-informed about the realities of the alternatives. If children who don’t speak English well are immediately mainstreamed into English-only language classrooms, they simply cannot keep up. People who haven’t studied foreign languages often don’t appreciate this as fact. They often speak in terms of “sink or swim” and “immersion.” However, in my experience, this conceptualization is simplistic and ignores reality.

I have come to understand that many opponents of bilingual education don’t realize that proficiency in a second language is not an all or nothing proposition. One is not either “fluent” or “not fluent” in a second language; there is a spectrum of proficiency. And the proficiency needed to be able to go to the store, rent an apartment or order in a restaurant is not necessarily evidence of proficiency for higher level language challenges like working or studying.

For example, when I lived in France after undergraduate school, I was able to travel, shop, and socialize with ease while speaking French, but there were other things I could not do because of the limitations of my proficiency. I had a very demoralizing experience at a bank one time as the teller tried to explain certain fees I had unwittingly incurred on my account due to my unfamiliarity with French banking rules. Despite over ten years of studying French by that time, I had no clue what the teller was saying to me, and I was very frustrated that the bank had hit my meager account with pricey fees. I could speak in French about shopping and food and movies, but banking policies were beyond my capabilities. Also during this time in France, I very much wanted to audit a university history course, but I ultimately never did because my language skills were not strong enough. I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand everything the professor said and I feared making a fool of myself.

Mainstreaming linguistic minority kids before they have achieved sufficient proficiency in English is harmful to the education of those prematurely mainstreamed kids. Lau v. Nichols recognized that fact. However, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that it is also harmful to the education of the rest of the class. If a sizeable number of students in a class don’t understand the language of instruction, everything gets bogged down as the teacher has to spend extra time to try to somehow get through to those students. Despite the use of charades and/or peer translations (if available), academic instruction is often nearly impossible. And even in the best of situations, it takes significantly more time. Not to be overlooked, classroom management and discipline are also a challenge when there is not a common language between students and teacher. It is unreasonable to expect a child to obey rules that she has not been told in a way she can understand. This is particularly the case when the norms of the child’s culture may be different from the school’s, or when the child is young and never attended (and been acculturated to) school previously.

When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, I experienced this dilemma first hand. In my last year of elementary school, our neighborhood experienced an unprecedented population explosion. It seemed like new kids were added to our class every few days for a while. By the end of the year, the classroom was almost bursting at its seams. The new students were almost all from Southeast Asia. They came from a handful of different countries and spoke several different languages. They were newly immigrated to the United States, and hardly any of the new students spoke English yet. By the end of the year, I remember doing the math and realizing that the class numbered about 40 students, and about half of them spoke little or no English. Our teacher did her best, but my recollection is that we got very little accomplished in the waning months of the year. To cope with the situation, she ended up assigning a lot of self-paced independent study work to the native English speakers while she tried to work closely with the kids whose English skills were still emerging. That chaotic situation did not meet any students’ needs adequately.

Matthew 11:25

At that time Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.

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