BETHLEHEM—Comment ca va? Ca va, merci. Quel temps fait-il? Je suis fatiguee. Je suis americaine. Parlez-vous anglais?

That is my not-too-impressive rapid-fire recall of frequently used French phrases, gleaned from four years of high school study many years ago. Vigorous review before a trip to a Francophone country will improve my language competence to the level of “survival French,” but once back home, comfortably swathed in English, French resettles into the deepest recesses of my brain.

Knowing how hard it is to learn a foreign language, I have great empathy for those who attempt to learn English as a second language. That includes my international students at Lehigh University. It takes courage to come to an American university to study a curriculum taught in English, their second language. While they must be reasonably fluent in English to attend Lehigh, they have to overcome the disadvantage of not speaking, writing, and reading as well as the natives, and they must cope with a new culture. But they elect this adventure because they know they will increase their English proficiency through complete immersion, and that they will stand out in the job market of their native countries when they return home, degree in hand.

Their situation is very different from immigrants who seek a new homeland here. For immigrants, language acquisition is not something temporary and tenuous, like my attempts to learn French for an infrequent jaunt, or an enhancement to higher education, as it is for the Lehigh students; it is the foundation for their economic livelihood.

Not having a command of English slams shut the door of job opportunity. Immigrants who come to this country unable to speak English know that their future and their children’s futures will be bleak if they do not acquire fluency. On this issue, reports The New York Times of June 5, parents and workers from many walks of life agreed: “whether they are from Mexico or Vietnam, the key to unlocking the treasures of America is to learn English as quickly as possible.”

Yet, it’s unclear what is the best way to make that dream of English fluency a reality. The debate on bilingual education, as seen in California’s Proposition 227, is charged politically and emotionally. It’s even divided the Latino community of California, says the Times article, some saying bilingual
education puts their children at a disadvantage, others fearing that the proposed one-year of intensive English, which will replace the bilingual program, will do “more harm than good.”

Initially, it was predicted that a majority of Latinos supported the measure, but the Times reports post-election that barely four out of 10 Latinos supported the measure when it came down to a vote. Some prominent Latinos, like the writer Richard Rodriguez, have spoken against bilingual education. Rodriguez has labeled bilingual education a “scheme” and maintains that a non-English speaking child’s “private” or family language must be separate from the “public” language of school.

These divided opinions mirror the contradictory research on the effectiveness of bilingual education. Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C., summarizes the debate in his article in the Phi Delta Kappan, “Bilingual Education: The Controversy”:

“Modern research findings on bilingual education are mixed. As with all educational research, it is so difficult to control for complex background factors that affect academic outcomes that no single study is ultimately satisfying.” As evidence, Rothstein cites some studies that show a gradual transition to English helps children achieve academically, and includes other studies that indicate rapid immersion in English yields the best results. Like so many educational practices, one size does not fit all in bilingual education, especially for such a manifold group as ESL students.

The diversity of the California system is staggering. A visit to the California Department of Education on the web shows that about one-quarter of its students are classified as “Limited English Proficiency Students.” And while over one million of these are Spanish-speaking, thousands of other children represent myriad Asian languages. Where can the teachers be found to instruct these students — Hmong, Khmer, Lao, Cantonese, Filipino — in their native tongues?

Cost also needs to be considered. California spends $ 300 million on bilingual programs and the federal government adds $ 100 million to that. The initiative which led to the vote of Proposition 227, accused the California bilingual program of being wasteful and unproductive, convincing the majority of Californians to vote for the proposition. Now the Federal government is debating limiting the time students spend in ESL programs nationwide.

Given that it’s hard work to learn a second language, it seems practical to give ESL children as much English as possible during the school day, especially since they are speaking their native languages at home. The more they hear, read, and speak English, the faster they will learn it. And it is in their best interest to learn academic English so that they can elect challenging academic courses in high school and have the chance to go to college.

Our mother tongue calls us into the comfort of familiar culture and “private” language, to borrow Rodriguez’s term. But mastery of standard English insures a “public” language as well, and an opportunity to contribute to our society and reap its benefits. Can one year of intensive study and complete immersion in English empower students with a public language? California now faces that test.

(Barbara Diamant, a member of the adjunct faculties, teaches English composition at Lehigh University and Northampton Community College.)

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