BILINGUAL educators may be in trouble in California, where evidence is mounting that their programs don’t work, but in New York they’re standing tall. A new report from the Board of Education hails the effectiveness of bilingual programs at helping immigrants to learn English.

Before delving into the report’s statistics, I should disclose a personal bias. I was once enrolled in a bilingual program of sorts. My parents moved to Chile when I was 7, and I entered second grade knowing not a word of Spanish. The school had a British principal and a handful of foreign students, but the teachers and most of the students were Chileans who did not speak English.

The bilingual program consisted of assigning me a seat next to a British girl who spoke Spanish. She provided some help, but she quickly made it clear that she had better things to do than serve as personal translator for the new kid. When it came to my language instruction, she was a believer in what today’s educators call the immersion method.

It was not an easy year. I had no idea what the teacher was saying for the first couple of months. I couldn’t speak Spanish, and I was ashamed to speak English after I heard other kids doing imitations of me on the playground.
They made a conversation between me and another American sound like two pigs grunting.

I got low grades in my classes (except for English) and even flunked an eye test because I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know how to say Z and H in Spanish. My linguistic mistakes were a steady source of amusement on the playground. One day, after a couple of boys taught me what I thought was a new way to say hello, I was chased all the way home by an enormous fourth grader who took violent issue with my assessment of his mother.

But by the end of the year I knew enough Spanish to transfer to a school that was entirely Chilean, and by the end of that next year, I was fluent and getting good grades. The problems of the first year all seemed trivial:
What could be more important than learning the local language as quickly as possible?

Learning a language in less two years didn’t seem unusual at the time, since all the other foreigners I knew in Chile were doing it, too. Only in retrospect, thanks to the report issued last month by the Board of Education, do I realize what astonishing prodigies we all were.

Consider what happened in the New York City public schools to immigrants who, like me, started off in second grade unable to speak English. The board’s report tracked a group that entered second-grade in 1991 and were assigned to the bilingual program, which was supposed to teach them English while also easing the transition by letting them take classes in their native language.

After the first year, 90 percent of the students still did not know English well enough to transfer to a mainstream class. After the second year, 79 percent remained in the bilingual program. After three years, 58 percent remained. After four years, 38 percent of them still didn’t know enough English to transfer to mainstream classes. And after eight years, 21 percent of them were still stuck. They had gone from second grade all the way to high school without becoming proficient in English. Bilingual education had kept them monolingual.

THOSE statistics were stunning to me, but not as stunning as the interpretation the Board of Education offered. Bilingual education programs,
the report concludes, “have demonstrated substantial effectiveness in developing the English language proficiency” of immigrants.

Substantial effectiveness? By those standards, my progress was nothing short of miraculous, as was the progress of the immigrants in the early 1900’s who were not exposed to bilingual education. Why should today’s second graders in New York have so much more trouble?

You could try arguing that some of those children from Asia and Russia face bigger obstacles than I did, because English is closer to Spanish than to Korean or Chinese or Russian. But the board’s own statistics show that Chinese, Korean and Russian students learn English faster than Latino students do.

You could also argue that many of today’s immigrant students are especially disadvantaged because of poverty and their parents’ lack of education. It’s a popular excuse among bilingual educators, but before you take it seriously, you might consider what happens when those students get the same chance I did.

More on that next week.



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