Don't dump native tongue, report says

U.S. needs more research on bilingualism, group finds

A new National Research Council study released yesterday affirms the benefits of bilingualism and reinforcement of the native language of children who enter school with limited English skills.

“We talk about the premise that it is important to promote proficiency in languages other than English,” said Donna Christian, president of the Center for Applied Linguistics and a member of the National Research Council’s 11-member Committee on Developing a Research Agenda on the Education of Limited English Proficient and Bilingual Students.

“To the extent that there is evidence that it is beneficial for students to have the opportunity to develop their native language, and beneficial for the nation to have individuals with skills other than English, it seems that is a desirable feature when it can fit into a good and sound program. The ability to maintain the native language and develop is important for all students,” she said.

“The committee doesn’t minimize the need to strengthen English language learning, but there’s no evidence that . . . students can’t maintain a native language and learn English.”

The committee addressed only the needs of non-English-speaking children and not the needs of children who speak black English, or “Ebonics,” she said.

The report calls for new and improved research focusing on a variety of educational approaches to meet the needs of 2.3 million children with limited English skills.

The committee also recommends the appointment of an advisory group within the Department of Education to oversee research efforts. The federal Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs “has a mixed record” managing research, the report says.

“There hasn’t been the kind of rigorous, controlled research we would want to prove without a doubt that a certain specific methodology would work,” Ms. Christian said.

“There has been lots of research that shows certain features that work, but now we need to put that research together and see what works best for what students and in what circumstances,” she said.

“The general feeling of the committee was that there are a variety of approaches that have promise, and it’s a matter of looking carefully at the needs of students in a given area and the resources available,” she said.

Some students who enter the school system as 10th-graders haven’t had schooling in their native language, she said. Others with limited English proficiency enter at the kindergarten or first-grade level.

“Their needs would be different,” Ms. Christian said.

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