The federal government has spent billions of dollars over the last 30 years encouraging – in some cases, forcing – school districts to teach Hispanic children to read and write in Spanish before teaching them English.
Now, the government has decided to spend another $45 million over the next five years to learn whether this system makes any sense. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced it will launch the most ambitious government study ever into the questions of how non-English-speaking Hispanic children can best learn to read English. It’s about time.
Betty McArdle, the NIH researcher who will coordinate the study, described the questions the research will try to answer in a recent Baltimore Sun article: “They come to kindergarten speaking Spanish. Now, they’ve got to learn English. Do we teach them to speak English first, before the majority of education is presented? Or do we teach them to read Spanish while learning to speak English? In which sequence? Do the teachers have to be native speakers of Spanish? Does it make a difference?”
Good questions, but why has it taken three decades for researchers to decide to tackle these issues? NIH and several other research institutions already have major studies under way to understand how human beings acquire language.
These studies have already shown, for example, that babies learn to differentiate between the sounds found in their mother’s language and other languages, tuning out the latter when they are only a few months old if the sounds are not reinforced by a caregiver. Research has also proven that there is an optimum time for human beings to acquire language, and that children who have no human contact during that period may never acquire human language, suggesting the brain actually becomes “hard-wired” for language at some point.
Other studies indicate children who learn a second language before the age of about 6 actually store the vocabulary and syntax for the language in the same part of the brain where their first language is stored, but older children and adults who learn additional languages later in life seem to use other parts of their brain for this purpose.
This information has important implications for education policy, but to date, has been largely ignored by the education establishment because it might undercut the rationale for delaying teaching English to young Hispanic children who enter school speaking only Spanish. For years now, bilingual education advocates have argued that the only way Hispanic children can effectively learn English is to teach them first to read and write in their native language: Spanish. The theory – expounded in most bilingual education departments at colleges and universities throughout the country – is that students must achieve academic mastery of their first language before a second language is introduced.
No amount of empirical evidence to the contrary has dissuaded the bilingual education lobby to explore alternatives. Indeed, college bilingual education departments – which train the nation’s language teachers – are notoriously loathe to debate their theories, as I have found time and again.
Just last week, I was invited to Michigan to talk about bilingual education at Saginaw Valley State University, but the head of the bilingual education department refused to allow a panel discussion on the topic to take place. Not a single member of the faculty would agree to debate the issue, and instead, discouraged their students from attending my lecture.
This head-in-the-sand approach is typical of bilingual education advocates. The New York City Board of Education recently rejected a recommendation by the city’s auditor that the board monitor students’ progress more closely to determine whether they were actually learning English in bilingual programs. A study done a few years ago showed that Hispanic children in the city’s bilingual programs were failing to learn English, while other students in English-as-a-second-language programs were succeeding. The board’s response was to bury the evidence by refusing to conduct studies that could compare one program with another.
Meanwhile, voters may not await the outcome of the NIH’s research. Californians already abolished that state’s failed bilingual program through a statewide ballot referendum that won 61 percent of the vote in 1998. And Arizona voters may have the chance to do the same if a proposed initiative gathers enough signatures to get on the ballot there next year. Too bad the federal government didn’t fund this research before it poured billions into bilingual education.
Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.