Bilingual education is not the best way to help youngsters

It began with the image of a little child, newly arrived in a strange country, sitting lost and confused in a classroom unable to understand the English swirling around him, already destined for an academic path that leads to failure and dropping out.

The benign impulse, surely, is to talk to the youngster in the language he does understand, to use it to teach him the academic subjects he should be learning along with enough English to help him, eventually, make an easy transition to a mainstream, grade-level classroom.

Back that inclination with civil rights consciousness and a spate of laws and court decisions guaranteeing every child schooling in his native language. Allow a bilingual bureaucracy to grow entrenched. Add the politics of race and ethnicity. Answer every criticism with accusations of bigotry and racism.

The results have turned out to be the angry, sad story reported by Rosalie Pedalino Porter in the new book “Forked Tongue,” subtitled “The Politics of Bilingual Education.”

Bilingual education isn’t working, Porter insists.

It’s not succeeding in easing children into mainstream classrooms and mainstream America in reasonable time, she says.

However kindly and sensible it sounds in theory, bilingual education has ossified into practices that foster and prolong ethnic segregation and isolation. It robs children of their best chance to become full participants in American life. And it contributes to the fragmenting of this nation into competing ethnic splinters, increasingly conscious and defensive of our differences instead of our unity.

Porter was once that isolated little immigrant 6-year-old adrift in an all-English classroom with no help. But her bewilderment in what was traditional “immersion” in English eventually faded. She became adept at English, went to college, mothered a family and then got caught up in the hopes and challenges of civil rights efforts and bilingual education.

She plunged with eagerness and dedication into bilingual education, earning the necessary college credits, teaching, working with families, serving on commissions, becoming the director of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs in the Newton, Mass., public schools.

Porter’s criticism of what bilingual education has become is devastating – and will be perilous to ignore. She says, for example:

Many children who don’t need bilingual programs are assigned to them anyway – in part to keep special funding coming in and provide jobs for minority teachers. Even though their home language may not be English, many youngsters already know considerable English, through older siblings, playmates, TV and other sources. Their primary need is intensive English. Teaching them in another language simply holds them back.

Many bilingual teachers aren’t fluent in English and cannot help children learn it well.

The emphasis of many bilingual programs on maintaining children’s native culture also wastes irreplaceable time that could be spent helping them move into mainstream life, as schools have historically done. What most immigrant families want, Porter says, is for schools to teach their youngsters how to function successfully in the English-speaking business and social world.

The insistence that children must be taught subject matter up to grade level in their native language increases their isolation and segregation in school. It is often impractical and pointlessly difficult. Occasionally it is impossible.

Bilingual education in this country is now provided in 145 languages. Some of them do not use a Roman alphabet, increasing the difficulty of shifting from them to English. A few – Hmong and Inuit, for example – don’t even have a written symbol system.

Porter doesn’t advocate a return to the old sink-or-swim immersion method by which millions of immigrant children learned English effectively enough to become editors, writers, teachers and other mainstream American successes.

But immersion can be modified in kindly, integrating, effective ways that minimize its difficulties and initial confusion.

Developing such techniques and using them effectively requires a better understanding of the brain’s neurologic potential to acquire language. (The brain, for example, has special abilities to encode and use languages in the preschool and early primary school years. The longer the transition to English is postponed, the more difficult it is likely to be.)

It will also require the political will to insist that English be used as a necessary way to unite us all into one nation.

Porter is not alone in her criticisms of doctrinaire bilingual education. Concern is widespread. And it is amplified by every projection of how big a percentage language-minority people will be in the work force and in the nation in the next century.

There are more effective programs, some of which Porter describes. Good, objective research will lead to others. What’s important, first, is to change the regulations, political constraints and mindsets that now make it difficult to help children well.

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