The realities of bilingual education

BOOK REVIEW FORKED TONGUE The Politics of Bilingual Education By Rosalie Pedalino Porter Basic Books, 285 pages, $ 22.95

A child enters a nursery school or kindergarten classroom knowing not one word of English. In six or eight months, the child understands everything and is joking and playing like one of the gang. This capacity for young children to learn language is simply miraculous.

When I first heard that public schools were undertaking something they called bilingual education, I was thrilled, for I thought now English-speaking children
– maybe even mine – will experience this miracle side-by-side with Spanish-,
Chinese- or French-speaking children who are learning English. But, except in a handful of programs, “bilingual education” doesn’t mean teaching children to be bilingual in American public schools. It means monolingual education for immigrant children in their native language and separate but supposedly equal monolingual education for English-speaking children in the mainstream.

This segregation began as a well-intentioned attempt to focus on immigrant children who were learning English in a sink-or-swim system in which too many of them felt the hands of punitive or negligent teachers pushing them under. It has become a bureaucratized and ideologized track that may keep children away from speaking English and from English-speaking classmates for years.

Rosalie Pedalino Porter knows a lot about the miracle of children and second languages. “I am one of those children. I sat in the back of the classroom in the Elliott Street School, Newark, New Jersey, at age six, an immigrant child, not understanding a word being said by the teacher or other students,” she writes. Her memory is a wash of pain and frustration resolving into joy, as she learned English and eventually went to college, an achievement that was completely beyond her class and sex in the Italian culture of her family.

She found it very easy to learn a third language, and when she began a teaching career, after raising her children, it was as a Spanish teacher in an early bilingual program in Springfield. Later she became director of bilingual education and English as a second language in the Newton public schools. And, still later, William Bennett, then US secretary of education, appointed her to the National Advisory and Coordinating Council on Bilingual Education.

From her very first work with children who couldn’t yet speak English, she found that the pace of teaching them all academic subjects in their own language first and then teaching English as a second language for only a small part of the day – almost as if they were going to school in Puerto Rico – postponed language acquisition and integration unnecessarily. She began reducing the time spent hearing Spanish and increasing the exposure time to English, and miracles happened. But her supervisors were not all so pleased.

The ideology that has grown up around bilingual education is that the miracle of children and language learning is something of a travesty, because it may alienate children from their native cultures. The idea is that an immigrant’s culture is a sort of endangered species that must be protected by not teaching the child English and not integrating the child into the new culture too soon. The most committed of these ideologues are Hispanic, Porter finds, and they feel that learning English is a kind of betrayal of their culture. Since many are both native Spanish speakers and native US citizens, they feel the teaching medium of the US schools that they attend should be their own Hispanic culture rather than the English-speaking mainstream culture of the majority.

Most other immigrants, especially Asians, often want something that approaches the old model of immersing a child in the new language and culture, but with special attention to a child’s needs under that kind of pressure – immersion that inculdes swimming lessons, as it were.

“Forked Tongue” is Porter’s chronicle of her struggles with parents who demanded one thing and bureaucrats who demanded the opposite. Through it all, she has managed to work toward a vision of integrated schools that is true to her childhood experience of what hurt and what helped.

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