Perhaps no other educational issue having an impact on Hispanics is as controversial as bilingual education.
On the one side are advocates who say it provides a necessary, albeit expensive, cushion for new immigrants to learn English while not falling behind in their studies. On the other hand are detractors who argue that it’s a waste of taxpayer money and that rather than being a transitional program, it promotes the use of Spanish in the classroom and segregates Latino students.
Surprisingly enough, Robert Bayley, Ph.D., assistant professor of bicultural/bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, understands the backlash and agrees that the current bilingual education process is inherently flawed and a waste of public resources.
Because it is a product of compromise and misunderstanding, Bayley suggests, bilingual education is not really bilingual at all; rather, it is anti-bilingual. He suggests that bilingual education fails because it seeks to eliminate the child’s native tongue in favor of English. He says we need people who can perform at a high level in both languages in order to grasp future global opportunities.
To study the process of how children learn a second language, Bayley was awarded an 87,669 Field Initiated Studies Grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement. This funding runs through October 1995 when an additional 103,500 grant from the Spencer Foundation will support continuing research through August of 1996. Bayley is working with Sandra Schecter, Ph.D., at the University of California-Berkeley, who is directing research in San Francisco.
Their project will study Mexican-American children in grades four, five, and six in San Antonio and the San Francisco Bay Area. They will look at what role the family plays in whether a youngster retains both languages or loses his or her Spanish-language skills.
HO: What is the difference between your definition of bilingual education and the one in practice?
Bayley: Most bilingual education programs attempt to steer students away from Spanish, toward the exclusive use of English in the classroom. By the time a student enters middle school, the transition to a new language is expected to be complete. By forcing bilingual students to abandon Spanish in favor of English, the education system creates a situation in which the students, who are not encouraged to speak and read Spanish at home, must re-learn Spanish later in their academic experience — with poor success in all studies and at greater expense. It seems to make more sense to continue to emphasize both languages throughout the primary and secondary grades.
HO: What you say seems so evident. Why the problem?
Bayley: Bilingual education is a little bit strange in the sense that there are very few areas of educational research in which there is as much consensus in the data, and yet, we have so little influence on public policy.
There’s a pretty clear consensus in the research that children read and learn more readily in their stronger language. It’s also fairly well established that it takes immigrant children about five or six years to achieve the kind of academic language skills equal to their English-speaking peers, even if they can get conversational proficiency in a year or two.
So, there is no reason, for example, to hold a child back from learning math or history because you are at that time forcing a child toward learning those subjects in English. That knowledge is readily transferable, if they learn it in Spanish while they are on the other hand also, as a matter of course, learning English.
HO: Why has bilingual education become such a political hot potato?
Bayley: There are people who, because they were born a certain gender or a certain ethnic background, had advantages for a number of years. They are losing those advantages. People feel threatened. There is a lot of fear. For example, one hears the comment, “People shouldn’t get paid more just because they are bilingual.” Well…why not? You get paid more if you have some other skill! But they argue that it is giving Hispanics an unfair advantage. Why is it unfair? These people had an unfair disadvantage for a long time. A turn-around seems fair enough.
One gets accustomed to privileges and tends to think of them as rights. Then, when they are no longer there, one has to be reminded that these are just privileges. There is no right of a son of a Harvard graduate to get into Harvard; that’s a privilege. And a privilege should be taken away.
I think in South Texas we know — and even people who don’t like the idea know — that our future is very much tied to our relations to the south, to Mexico and Latin America. Even conservatives in our region such as Gov. George W. Bush realize that bilingual education is important, that they live a different reality because they live in this region.
HO: Are there pressures that force a Spanish-speaking child to resist speaking in that language?
Bayley: Yes, I think there are. Peer pressure is pretty strong. You want to be like the other kids, and if they speak English, you’re not going to want to speak Spanish. Another thing we’re finding is that, as you might guess, the better off parts of town are mostly English speaking, even where integrated. English, therefore, becomes the language of economic success and of social success.
Children are fairly sensitive to what’s going on around them. They perceive English as more desirable. They get messages through the whole society that English is the prestige language and that Spanish is somehow or another not quite as good.
HO: Do you find that the family has an influence on whether a student will lose his or her Spanish-language skills or not?
Bayley: Very much so. Often, Spanish-speaking parents encourage children to speak in English only for fear that they will have difficulty mastering it otherwise. Under those circumstances, these children are limited to speaking Spanish occasionally with their grandparents. It’s regrettable, however, because delaying the introduction of Spanish until English is mastered is disastrous.
The home appears to be the key. This is regardless of the educational system that the student studies under. What the parents’ attitudes are. It’s independent of other measures. It’s pretty persuasive.
For example, among immigrant families of ranch hands in our area, there is a real dedication among families to tutor their children every day after school, reading and writing in Spanish. They get materials from Mexico, books and workbooks sent by relatives. They are determined that their children are going to be literate in Spanish. They put tremendous effort and discipline into this. They themselves might not have progressed beyond the equivalent of junior high school in Mexico, they are not highly educated, they are just ordinary people, yet they have a tremendous dedication that their children not lose the language. They know. Language leads to so much else. You do all sorts of things through reading. And of course, it is obvious that two languages are better than one.
HO: So we are touching upon more than reading skills here?
Bayley: Yes. We are talking not just about decoding skills but about skills such as predicting and inferring — all the sorts of thinking skills involved in reading are not language specific. Those skills can be developed in any language. And then you add that to the fact — and you see this very much in our region — that we have a kind of language deficit in the United States.
We don’t have enough people, compared to many countries, who really do have adequate mastery of more than one language. This is essential to carrying on the role of the leading international trading country. So aside from the developmental advantages, there are clearly advantages for people later in life to aid their professional careers. Here in the United States monolingualism is viewed as “normal,” but this is not the case throughout the world where people in other countries cannot understand such a state of affairs as being the norm.
HO: Is this merely an issue of schools and businesses?
Bayley: Not at all. We see a preference expressed among the families in this area that language is tied to people’s identity and unity — and they don’t want to lose that! This is a cultural matter, and people should not have to lose a language skill, an asset, in order to fit in.