I remember my very first school assignment. On the first day of kindergarten in Gaithersburg, Md., a teacher explained through hand gestures that I was to glue pictures of home appliances on one half of the page and of vegetables on the other. I also remember the sense of relief I felt as I carried out the assigned work. Schoolwork, it seemed, was something I would be able to handle.
I suppose I had a bit more anxiety about that question than the average 5-year-old. For when I began going to school nearly 35 years ago, I spoke no English. My parents had emigrated from Mexico in the year of my birth, and although they were, by the time I started school, both fluent English speakers, they still spoke nothing but Spanish at home. In regard to the acquisition of English by their children, they simply assumed that since nothing but English would be spoken at school, we would learn the language soon enough.
And that is indeed what happened. By the time I started the first grade, I spoke to my parents in English, although they still responded in Spanish. I experienced, in other words, a bilingual education in the old style.
In subsequent years, I have often wondered what would have happened if I had experienced the benefits of the contemporary bilingual education movement.
For one thing, I doubt that my parents would have been as confident that their children were going to learn English simply by virtue of going to school. They probably would have made a concerted effort to speak English at home, so as to ensure I had an adequate basis in the language before I started school. But, of course, I was fortunate: My parents were fluent in English and had the option of pursuing such a strategy.
Yet what of children whose parents speak little English? What effect has bilingual education had on them? Many of the early bilingual education programs in this country were based on an extremely naive model of language acquisition. Instructors teaching, say, a math class would utter a sentence in the students’ native language and then repeat it in English. Naturally,
the children subjected to this approach would hear a coherent sentence followed by a bunch of incomprehensible gibberish, which they duly ignored.
Bilingual education has come a long way since those days, but the question of whether ultimately it is more or less effective than the old English-only system remains open. Last year, California passed an initiative requiring a year of English-only immersion for all non-English speaking students.
Because of the usual bureaucratic loopholes, few school districts have fully implemented the initiative. One that has – Oceanside, a working-class town north of San Diego – has seen the reading proficiency of its non-English-
speaking students double.
This by itself is just one piece of evidence, of course. Yet the problem with institutionalized, state-funded programs such as bilingual education is that a large number of people have a vested interest in paying attention to the evidence only when it supports continuing or expanding the programs that employ them. That bilingual education might itself be the disease for which it is supposedly the cure is a hypothesis that, predictably enough, the bilingual education establishment has been unwilling to consider.
Even more than in the past, America at the turn of century is a country of immigrants. California in particular has become a polyglot experiment in multicultural democracy, and the question of how best to integrate the children of recent arrivals into the broader American culture remains one of immense importance. It says something about the power of entrenched bureaucratic interests that it took the votes of nearly 10 million Californians to create the conditions that would allow the effectiveness of bilingual education to begin to be tested in a serious way.
Paul Campos is professor of law and director of the Byron R. White Center for American Constitutional Study at the University of Colorado.