Ken Ward’s Dec. 5 column, ‘Speaking the language,’ expressed a common view of bilingual education, especially in California. Unfortunately, he misses his mark by a mile.

Before we condemn bilingual education, we should first know what it is. It is not some feel-good multicultural education scheme based solely on promoting self esteem. Instead, it’s based on a simple concept _ children learn to read faster in their native language than in a strange one.

It is just easier to make the connection between those symbols on paper and a word that we already know than between such letters and words in an unknown language. Once we understand the concept of reading, we are able to transfer the idea and learn to read words in the new language.

Bilingual instruction includes teaching English as a new language, but teaching in other subject matter begins in the student’s native language so he won’t fall hopelessly behind in math, social studies and science while wrestling with a new language.

Anyway, literacy in two languages is better than command of only one, despite the thinking of dedicated monolinguals and English-only chauvinists.

No bilingual education classes will work very well if taught by a teacher who is not truly bilingual. Nor will they be any help if they do not include good second language instruction. To call a program which fails in either department ‘bilingual education’ makes a mockery of the concept, yet this has often been done.

Immersion programs for teaching a new language work for many people, there is no question about it, but they do have their limitations. Let’s suppose you are in such a class learning a completely strange language. The teacher holds up a picture of a man and says ‘ecce homo,’ later, he follows with one of a woman, and says ‘ecce mulier,’ then comes a picture of a boy and ‘ecce puer,’ and one of a girl and ‘ecce puella.’ You will learn what these words mean.

Next you go to civics class, where the teacher carefully explains to you the functions of the two consuls, the senate and the popular assemblies and throws in a bit about the tribunes. You stare blankly at the front of the class, bored out of your skull since you only know three of four words of Latin.

The same problem occurs in math, geography, public speaking, etc. Besides a basic knowledge of the language, each subject has its own special vocabulary. If only your instructor would explain it in plain Greek! But even if he knows your language, he can’t stop to translate because he has 35 other Latin-speaking boys to teach. You are in serious danger of being rated the class dunce, and you know you’re brighter than that.

Naturally, such a language-different student will do very poorly in classes where he can understand little of the material. Also, his scores on English language standardized tests will be worthless in measuring real skills or potential. Immersion techniques cannot solve these problems in time to prevent a student from falling badly behind. The student’s school years are simply too valuable to waste until he can get up to speed in a new language.

Contrary to Mr. Ward’s assertions, securing federal dollars is not important in promoting bilingual education. In fact, here in Las Vegas, little or no federal money is available for sustaining it nowadays. This bilingual education, then, is not about empire building, but real learning.

James R. Hinds, a military historian, writes from Las Vegas.

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