TO PART V
By James Crawford
How should American schools respond to the growing number
of children who arrive each year speaking little or no English? Today there
is general agreement that these students need some kind of special help.
For anyone with lingering doubts, the old "sink or swim" treatment
has been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court. But setting aside the legalities,
many pedagogical questions remain: What are the most promising methods
in teaching language-minority children? Need they involve bilingual instruction?
Or are there workable alternatives that use only English? Is it more important
to keep children from falling behind academically while they learn English
or to prepare them for "mainstream" classes as quickly as possible?
Should schools develop students' native-language skills or concentrate
on intensive English instruction? Does research support the superiority
of one approach over another, or is it premature to judge?
There are also practical concerns. It would be problematic
enough if all limited-English-proficient (LEP) students spoke the same
minority language. But with immigration on the rise, as many as eighty
languages are represented in some school districts – exacerbating the difficulties
of recruiting qualified teachers, assessing student skills, and communicating
with parents. Besides the language barrier, children from immigrant and
refugee homes are often "at risk" because of poverty, neglect,
crime, and other factors that affect school performance. They are more
likely to need remedial classes or special education. Meanwhile, resources
are stretched thin as state and federal governments cut back on education
spending. Regardless of what educational theorists prescribe, local school
boards operate under real-world constraints. They tend to ask: What is
the best affordable alternative in teaching LEP children?
How can legal obligations be met and minority communities be appeased without
disrupting the bureaucracy or provoking resistance from teachers?
Debate over these questions is further complicated – some
would say, obfuscated – by politics. However unfortunate, the politicization
of educational decision-making is hard to avoid, in this field more than
most. Often bilingual education becomes a stage for acting out larger conflicts.
Opponents charge that legislators support the program less for its pedagogical
merits than as a way to appease ethnic voting blocs and to provide jobs
for Hispanics. Proponents respond that such critics are inspired by racial
and ethnic hostility or, at best, put a higher priority on quick assimilation
than on the welfare of language-minority students.
Public support for bilingual education has declined since
the 1960s because many Americans see it as a diversion from English instruction.
They worry that immigrants – Spanish speakers, in particular – are no longer
making the effort to learn the national tongue. That impression is erroneous
but understandable, as Siobhan Nicolau and Rafael Valdivieso explain. Sociolinguistic
research shows that immigrants are acquiring English, if anything, more
rapidly today than at the turn of the century. By the second generation
in this country, Hispanics tend to speak English as their usual language;
by the third generation, as their only language. And yet, owing
to immigration and fertility rates, the number of Spanish speakers continues
to increase. Moreover, Hispanics are perhaps more likely to maintain their
bilingualism than earlier groups of newcomers (although melting pot mythology,
not hard data, is the main basis for comparison). Spanish and other languages
are certainly more likely to be heard in the formerly pristine domains
of anglophone Americans. Hence the misconception that newcomers are failing
to learn English, which has led in turn to a political backlash against
bilingual education. Ironically, a program designed to foster assimilation
is now perceived as obstructing it.
Coexisting with the contradiction between politics and
pedagogy are differences over ends and means: What should the schools be
teaching LEP children, and how should it be taught? Such questions were
left unresolved by the Bilingual Education Act of 1968. Senator Ralph Yarborough,
the chief sponsor of the law, conceived it primarily as a poverty program
for Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans. (Before final passage the bill
was broadened to include other language groups.) Its goal was to remedy
the high rates of school failure and the resulting lack of economic opportunity
for these groups. Whether bilingual education would stress the transition
to English or the maintenance of other languages was a question for local
educators to decide.
In testimony on the bill, both of these aims were endorsed,
but the main focus was on what notto do for LEP students. Bruce
Gaarder explains the long-term damage, intellectual and psychological,
that resulted from the sink-or-swim method. Interrupting cognitive development
during the time children spent learning English (often imperfectly) left
many of them permanently behind in school. Rejecting their native tongue
as substandard, and even punishing students for speaking it, left them
feeling rejected and substandard, as Rubén Salazar describes. Bilingual
schooling was promoted as an antidote to the poisonous effects of educational
With little practical experience to guide them, early
programs developed by trial and error. But soon critics began to demand
results. If bilingual was better – the preferred remedy when federal authorities
found districts violating the Lau decision – where was the
evidence to support it? Noel Epstein asserts that nonbilingual approaches
may be equally effective and deserve to be tried. Also, he charges that
many bilingual educators are less eager to hasten assimilation and English
acquisition than to preserve ethnic languages and cultures. Should the
latter function, previously left to private and parochial schools, now
be assumed by the taxpayers? Appearing in 1977, Epstein's monograph reshaped
the policy discussion. The burden of proof began to shift from traditional
educators who had failed LEP students with all-English instruction to innovators
who promised better outcomes from bilingual approaches.
Either way, insists Richard Rodríguez, the hard
choices of assimilation cannot be evaded. Notwithstanding his own painful
experience with sink-or-swim education, Rodríguez objects that bilingual
education postpones the task of learning English. Moreover, he believes
that it offers "a linguistic solution to a social dilemma," holding
out the false hope that minority children can live comfortably in two worlds.
José Cárdenas exposes the fallacies behind
these and similar criticisms, for example, that bilingual programs are
failing to teach English, that children will suffer if not moved quickly
into all-English classes, or that "simple English" is all students
need for academic pursuits. By now, the existence of successful bilingual
programs should have refuted such misinformed attacks; yet they continue
to circulate widely. To Cárdenas, the critics' refusal seriously
to consider the rationale for native-language instruction suggests that
hidden prejudices are at work.
Former Secretary of Education William Bennett is one opponent
who has no hesitation about articulating a broader agenda. Since a common
language is essential to American democracy, he says, "we should not
be bashful about proclaiming fluency in this language as our educational
goal." Bennett characterizes bilingual education – or, at least, the
federal preference for bilingual education – as a failure, alleging that
it has slighted English in favor of "cultural pride." He argues
that research on the effectiveness of bilingual programs remains inconclusive
and that therefore funding should be available to explore English-only
James J. Lyons responds that no one quarrels with English
acquisition as necessary (though hardly sufficient) in educating a LEP
child. Yet Bennett's fixation on English threatens to interfere with an
equally important goal of the Bilingual Education Act: overall academic
achievement. Research is increasingly documenting the superiority of bilingual
approaches, not only in teaching other subjects, but – paradoxically –
in teaching English as well. Stephen Krashen explains that what counts
in second-language acquisition is the quality, not the quantity, of exposure.
That is, we acquire language only to the extent we understand it. Well-designed
bilingual programs provide factual context and develop native-language
skills, both of which help to make English "input" comprehensible.
As Lily Wong Fillmore points out, ineffective bilingual programs are numerous.
Still, they should not discredit the concept of dual-language instruction
– only the educators who sabotage it.
Children receive other benefits from bilingual instruction,
as well. Robert Bunge elaborates the role of language in affirming Native
American identity, values, and a spiritual orientation toward the natural
world. The Bilingual Education Act has provided an important impetus to
reviving Indian tongues that are threatened with extinction.
An interesting parallel to the bilingual education debate
may be found in the world of deaf education. As Ceil Lucas explains, the
doctrine of "oralism" – the emphasis on teaching children to
speak and sign in English – long outweighed other considerations. Denied
full access to the tools of a natural language, deaf students' intellectual
development has suffered. But there has been a significant exception: the
deaf children of deaf parents, who grow up as native "speakers"
of American Sign Language and fare much better academically. Now that A.S.L.
is beginning to gain acceptance in deaf education, however, its use is
threatened by the English Only movement.
Official English proponents cite many social and political
pitfalls associated with bilingualism. But according to Catherine Snow
and Kenji Hakuta, they never calculate "the costs of monolingualism."
English immersion programs, and even transitional bilingual education,
tend to produce the same monolingual result. Without much thought, schools
are depriving children of bilingual skills that the country (not to mention
the individuals) could use. Meanwhile, Americans complain about the dismal
state of foreign language teaching. A more rational alternative, Snow and
Hakuta suggest, would be "two-way" bilingual education. This
approach conserves LEP children's mother tongue while teaching them English
and at the same time provides English speakers an opportunity to learn
a second language. Two decades of experimentation with such programs has
shown they can produce fluent bilinguals at no cost to academic achievement.
Still, they have been slow to catch on in the United States.
COPYRIGHT NOTICE: From LANGUAGE LOYALTIES:
A SOURCE BOOK ON THE OFFICIAL ENGLISH CONTROVERSY, by James Crawford, published
by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1992 by the University
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