Oct. 19, 1997 — A new report hailed by groups in favor of bilingual education may actually turn out to hurt bilingual education.
The study, conducted by the California Educational Research Cooperative at the University of California, Riverside, concluded that the time it takes limited-English-proficient students to learn English has been underestimated.
They need 10 years to achieve native fluency in writing, reading and speaking English, the authors say.
One imagines the study, which focused on students in the Santa Ana, California,
school district, was conducted with all scientific, scholarly rigor. Yet one can’t imagine a more incorrect conclusion.
From personal experience, as someone who in fifth grade would have been termed an LEP student in a school full of LEP students (had there been such a classification in 1966), I can categorically state that I know of no child who needed a decade to learn English. Young children absorb languages like a sponge, and can learn English in a year or two. It takes longer for older kids, but that ten-year figure is bogus.
That a study could have come to such a preposterous conclusion is distressing for those of us who support bilingual education on its merits, not as some sort of ideological proving ground. It serves as ammunition for Ron Unz,
the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who says he has collected enough signatures to put on the ballot next June an initiative that would practically end bilingual education for the 1.3 million California school children who are learning English. Unz believes bilingual education is a waste of taxpayers money that actually slows the learning of English, and that it only exists for the benefit of a self-serving bilingual education establishment. Unz can now point to this study as an example of just how self-serving, self-perpetuating this establishment can be.
But accepting Unz’ attack on bilingual education is just as mistaken as accepting this new study. Bilingual education should be standard educational practice. (I say “should” because contrary to popular belief,
bilingual education is in fact not standard practice. Out of the more than 3.2 LEP students in the country, just 2.5 million receive some sort of specialized language instruction; half of them are in “structured immersion”
programs, half attend bilingual classes).
Ideology aside, bilingual ed makes sense, particularly for teenagers.
In transitional bilingual programs, the most common type, students take classes to learn English while they take other subjects — math, history
— in their native language. This way they do not fall behind while they learn the new language. Then, when they learn enough English, they are mainstreamed.
The older the child the longer the wait, but the ten-year period suggested by the Santa Ana study is not reasonable. Mathematically, it is saying that a first-grader will not learn proper English until 11th grade, clearly an absurdity.
Not that keeping a child in a bilingual program for a decade is, in itself,
bad. It depends on the type of program. Under what educators term the dual language model of bilingual education (available only in some four dozen schools nationwide) LEP and English-speaking students attend classes together in two languages beginning in kindergarten. The goal is to make all students,
native English-speakers included, fluent in two languages. Such programs offer bilingual classes for even more than ten years, but they do so because they figure it is good for students to keep up with two languages throughout their entire schooling, not because it takes LEP students ten years to learn English.
Bilingual education needs to be defended. Transitional programs enable students to keep up with their peers while they learn English, and dual programs make American kids fluent in two languages. But the ridiculous findings of the Santa Ana study play right into the hands of bilingual education foes like Ron Unz.
Roger Hernndez writes this weekly syndicated column for King Features.
He can be reached via email at TRMG60A@prodigy.com.