For Learning or Ethnic Pride?

Parents, politicians and pedagogues battle over bilingual classes

Judy Collins, a mother who lives in Ventura County, Calif., is fighting mad. “They are teaching kids the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish,” she says, of bilingual classes at San Cayetano Elementary School, which her daughter attends. “It’s a United States flag,” she adds indignantly. “They need to learn that in English.”

Collins’ exasperation reflects the feelings of millions of Americans on one side of an inflammatory issue: bilingual education in America’s public schools. More than 1.3 million students whose primary language is not English are enrolled in federal, state or local study programs that provide instruction in their native tongues. These programs have their roots in the federal Bilingual
Education Act, passed as a noble experiment in 1968. Its original aim was to generate optional instruction that would help immigrant youngsters and native-born Hispanic-American children learn English quickly. Meanwhile, they were to move ahead in their schoolwork by using their own language as much as necessary. That at least is what Congress thought it was doing.

Proponents of bilingual learning, however, see it not only as a way to help students with limited English proficiency (LEP) make the transition into the mainstream of American classrooms but as a means for preserving the students’ native language and culture. Today bilingual programs are conducted in a gallimaufry of around 80 tongues, ranging from Spanish to Lithuanian to Micronesian Yapese. Some of these courses are designed to maintain a student’s original language indefinitely, bolstering the language with enrichment studies in indigenous art, music, literature and history. The annual cost is well over $350 million.

Supporters argue that instruction in children’s native tongues is essential to providing them with an adequate education. “The Federal Government has a profound responsibility to these children,” says James Lyons, chief lobbyist for the National Association for Bilingual Education. But critics hotly question whether such expenditures are worthwhile. They also challenge the role of the Federal Government in favoring or heavily funding any particular method of instruction, much less sponsoring cultural-maintenance studies. “The intent of bilingual education has been distorted into a vehicle for a bicultural approach to education,” says Robert Sweet, a member of the White House Office of Policy Development.

Bilingual learning, no longer just an optional classroom service, has become a fundamental issue of public policy. “It’s cultural, it’s social, it’s political,” says Robert Calfee, professor of education and psychology at Stanford University. Nationally, by some estimates, 3.6 million school-age youngsters are rated as LEPs, 80% of them Hispanic. The voting bloc represented by their parents has generated congressional support for expanding bilingualism into cultural maintenance. Even the White House is gun-shy about attacking the concept too vehemently, although the Administration considers it both inappropriate and wasteful.

Some see bilingual education as potentially worse than that. Former California Senator S.I. Hayakawa believes the result of language maintenance could be to foster divisiveness like that of the French-speaking separatist movement in Canada that peaked in the 1970s. As an intended antidote, he introduced and still lobbies for a constitutional amendment that would make English the official U.S. language for government affairs.

Backers of bilingual education embrace it as a legal right in a dozen states. Federal guidelines specify only that school districts with more than 5% minority nationals among their pupils provide LEPs with effective English instruction. Moreover, the Supreme Court, in a 1974 decision involving 1,800 Chinese students in San Francisco, confirmed that the district had to provide for the education of the English-deficient students; but the court did not say how. “Teaching English to the students of Chinese ancestry who do not speak the language is one choice” in the method of instruction, wrote Justice William Douglas in the court’s unanimous decision. “Giving instructions to this group in Chinese is another. There may be others.”

Indeed there are, for if ever a law has come to mean different things to different people, it has been the Bilingual Education Act and its derivative edicts.
— To Ivan Quintanilla, 9, who just finished fourth grade in Miami, bilingual education has meant learning flawless English in the two years since he arrived from Cuba. He has also been able to keep up to grade level in his courses through a mix of his native tongue and English. “When we are in the Spanish part of our studies we all speak Spanish,” says Ivan. “But when we are in the English part or in recess no one speaks Spanish.” He concludes, “You must speak English if you want to have friends and be happy.”
— To slim, smiling Quoc Cong Tran, 16, who arrived at a San Francisco high school from Viet Nam six months ago, language instruction means a minimum of short-term help in classroom Vietnamese, while he loads up on English in courses called English as a second language. “My future, I choose American,” says Quoc.
— To Benjamin Viera, 37, a native New Yorker married to a Puerto Rican wife who speaks Spanish around the house, bilingual education used to mean trouble in communicating with his son, now going into eighth grade. Six years ago Viera switched the boy out of a bilingual program and into regular classes. “I’d talk to him in English at home, and he couldn’t understand me,” complains Viera. “He’d go and ask his mother what I said. His teacher was giving him Spanish all day and very little English.”
— To Jackie Gutierrez, 8, of the Santa Clara pueblo in New Mexico, bilingual learning has meant sitting in a twice-a-week class listening and responding to Leon Baca, a teacher of the ancient Tewa language. During a recent session, Baca grunted, “Nyaemangeri|” The students replied, “Left side|” “Haa [yes],” intoned Baca; then “Ko’ringeri|” The children shouted, “Right side|” Asked later what the enrichment class was all about, Jackie replied, “We’re learning to speak Indian.”

To advocates, the learning experiences of Jackie Gutierrez and Ivan Quintanilla are what the bilingual programs are all about: easing the transition to English or holding on to one’s ethnic heritage, or both. “It is very important to us that kids take pride in their own culture,” says Ligaya Avenida, director of bilingual programs for the San Francisco unified school district, where some 44 languages are spoken. “In the process of acquiring English you have to develop their cognitive abilities without losing their self-image.”

Others disagree vehemently. Says Cuban-born Carol Pendas Whitten, head of the Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual Education: “If parents want to preserve the native language, that’s fine, but I do not think it should be the role of the school.” Another opponent is Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction, who insists such instruction “should be transitional . . . Bilingual education is not going to be used as a cultural isolation program.”

Significantly, no one has proved beyond doubt that LEP youngsters learn faster or better through bilingual instruction than by any other methods, including old-fashioned “submersion,” i.e., going cold turkey into regular classrooms where only English is spoken. Says Adriana de Kanter, one of the authors of a controversial 1981 study sponsored by the Department of Education: “Basically we found that sometimes [bilingualism] worked, and sometimes it didn’t, and that most of the time, it made no difference at all.”

Meanwhile, dedicated teachers are laboring to lead their LEPs into the mainstream, either with strict bilingual methods or with broad variations on them. In El Paso, public secondary schools are using the High Intensity Language Training program that emphasizes training in English as a second language. Until 1982, many of El Paso’s Hispanic high schoolers either failed or dropped out. Today HILT students regularly appear on the honor roll; many are members of the National Honor Society and several have graduated at the top of their classes.

At Brooklyn’s P.S. 189, Principal Josephine Bruno runs her school on a bilingual basis, switching back and forth so that students take one class in English and another in their native tongue. Whatever language they use, Bruno’s charges are getting the message: 86% of her 1,130 students read English at grade level. Such results prompt Bruno, and thousands like her, to brush aside the furor over bilingual education. “If the kids are learning,” she asks, “who cares?”

Unfortunately, this neglects the bigger question: Are they learning because of bilingual studies or in spite of them? Nearly 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars have gone by, but the question remains.

Reported by Alessandra Stanley/Washington and Dick; Thompson/San Francisco, with other bureaus

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