Language Loyalties


Language Diversity
and Education

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 neglect.

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 alternatives.

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 of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.