WASHINGTON—Gerda Bikales arrived in the United States at age 16, fluent in Yiddish, French, Flemish and German. But she didn’t know a word of English.
Within two years, Mrs. Bikales had graduated with honors from public high school in New York City, and spent much of her free time socializing with English-speaking friends, reading novels and going to movies.
“I wasn’t unusual at all. We all did that,” said Mrs. Bikales, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe who still speaks English with a slight accent.
It was Mrs. Bikales’ success in the melting pot that helped turn her into a full-time lobbyist for the English language _ and a fierce opponent of prolonged bilingual education programs paid for by the federal government.
“Bilingualism isolates children; it’s not in the national interest,” said Mrs. Bikales, director of U.S. English, a non-profit, non-partisan lobbying group she helped form last spring.
The group, which operates out of a small office across town from Capitol Hill, is open to “all who agree that English is and must remain the only official language of the people of the United States,” according to its brochure.
Among the trends U.S. English deplores are the printing of ballots and drivers’ license tests in foreign languages.
Many disagree with Mrs. Bikales’ on bilingual education, recently the subject of intense debate in political and educational circles.
The Reagan administration has sought to cut federal funds for bilingual education programs but has been blocked by Congress.
Nonetheless, President Reagan, who has tried actively to court the Hispanic community in recent months, said in Texas last August that he endorses ” effective bilingual programs.”
In general, the Hispanic community has strongly backed bilingual programs. Supporters contend the programs play a crucial role in helping immigrant children who know little English keep up with their school work until they learn the language.
Without bilingual education, “language-minority students would drop out of school and be unprepared for the labor market or life in general,” said James Lyons, an attorney for the National Association of Bilingual Education.
Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, a product of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” in 1968.
Six years later, the Supreme Court said the San Francisco public school system was in violation of the Civil Rights Act if it did not provide English-language instruction for 1,800 non-English speaking Chinese students.
The court said making English a requirement in school before the child has learned the language “is to make a mockery of public education.” But the justices did not specify what method should be used to teach English.
In 1980, Shirley M. Hufstedler, former President Carter’s secretary of education, unveiled a series of proposed federal rules that would have required, among other things, that schools teach youngsters in their native language along with classes in English.
T.H. Bell, the current education secretary, scrapped the proposals in 1981 shortly after the Reagan administration took office. He called them “inflexible” and “incredibly costly,” and said the federal government should not dictate how schools teach English.
This year, the Department of Education will spend about $138 million for bilingual programs in about 80 languages. States will spend an additional $109 million.
Some 3.6 million school-age children _ out of a grade and high school enrollment of 45 million _ have limited English proficiency. In Houston, for example, nearly 15,000 students were enrolled in Spanish bilingual programs.
Methods of teaching bilingual education vary from state to state and from school district to school district.
In some cases, children take “content” subjects such as math or science in the child’s native language. In others, children are enrolled in “English as a second language” programs, in which they take all courses in English but are given special attention.
Underlying the debate is how long children should remain in bilingual education programs _ the great “sink-or-swim” issue.
Mrs. Bikales and her lobby say they understand the need for short-term, transitional bilingual programs that would last, say, a few months. Instead, she says bilingual education programs have become institutionalized.
The federal government has bought “a cultural maintenance program rather than a program to teach English,” said Sen. Walter Huddleston, D-Ky., who contends bilingual education has “gradually lost its role as the transitional way of teaching English.”
Not so, say proponents. “No bilingual program in the United States promotes another language as a substitute for English,” wrote Carlos R. Hortas, chairman of the Romance language department at Hunter College in New York.
And Gloria Zamora, president-elect of the National Association for Bilingual Education, said she cannot believe the issue is still being debated. “So many people don’t realize that one of the main goals of the program is to teach students English,” she said.
Huddleston intends to introduce in Congress a proposed constitutional amendment to make English the nation’s official language. The measure, first proposed by former Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, R-Calif., made little headway in the past.
U.S. English and its members got some powerful ammunition recently from the Twentieth Century Fund, a private research group.
The fund’s task force on federal elementary and secondary policy recommended that “federal money now going to bilingual programs be used to teach non-English-speaking children how to speak, read and write English.”