Here is what those of us who have had a little high school Spanish want to know:

Why is it, when we land at the airport in Mexico City, we can’t immediately bargain with street vendors, make a dinner reservation, ask directions, discuss foreign policy, or demand our money back in fluent Spanish?

Why do we have to puzzle out the morning paper, consult dictionaries, memorize idiot phrases from guidebooks, buy in English (at a 50 percent markup) and depend on the kindness of English-speaking strangers?

Because, of course, we’re rusty. We haven’t spoken Spanish since we left school. We left the language behind as soon as walked out of the classroom. There was no need to use it in the other classes, in everyday life, in conversation or business. Except for a little homework in Spanish, we thought, spoke, read, wrote, and lived in English. Even in Spanish class, we might use English.

No one serious about learning another language would approach it that way. On the contrary, diplomats or businessmen who want to operate in another language are told to try total immersion: Speak nothing but the language. Think in it. Go to a country where only that language is spoken. Shun interpreters and move in with a family. The first few days or even weeks may be frustrating, or comic, or largely mute. But most people, forced to sink or swim in another language, begin to swim, however imperfectly.

Only if allowed to use our own language to communicate most of the time may we fail to learn another. Just as someone obliged to use a crutch most of the time may never learn to walk easily.

This finally brings us to the subject of bilingual education–an approach that seems to be doing a remarkable job at producing students uneasy in both languages. A typical bilingual program in, say, New York City, may offer one English class a day; all the others would be taught in the student’s native tongue. Which is the way many Americans study Spanish–or French or German–without ever learning much of it. Why learn a language if we can leave it behind when we go home, or to work, or even to the next class?

The theory behind bilingual ed is that students should study most of the time in the language they already know; otherwise they may fall behind in their studies. In practice, bilingual ed turns out to be a crippling, isolating way to treat kids.

Bill Clinton, with his natural talent for expressing the worst ideas in language that makes them sound oh-so-sensible, put it like this in a recent speech to the Hispanic Caucus: “Of course English is the language of the United States. The issue is whether children who come here, while they are learning English, should also be able to learn other things.”

Anybody who proposes to say what the issue is, when there are at least a couple of them involved, has already oversimplified the subject. No one I know objects to kids’ learning English and other subjects, but a recent study out of New York’s school system indicates that the best way to do both is in English.

New York’s board of education concluded that immigrants who were taught in English alone made more progress than those assigned to bilingual programs, which tend to isolate students and stunt their progress. That’s also the complaint of a lawsuit recently filed by a group of parents in Brooklyn, who call New York’s bilingual programs a “prison” for their kids.

This language prison is expanding steadily in New York, thanks to federal funding. In eight years, the number of kids assigned to bilingual programs has doubled–from 85,000 to 154,000. To quote the New York Times: “A bustling bilingual bureaucracy is now hard at work, often drafting children into the
(bilingual) programs whether or not they need them. Indeed, many of the students assigned to bilingual studies are born in this country and speak English better than any other language.”

Students are supposed to stay in bilingual ed no more than three years. But it’s an old, established patterns by now: Set up an educational bureaucracy and it will find a way to stay in business forever. Parents charge that the three-years-and-out requirement is routinely waived.

This report from the board of education notes that nine out of ten students enrolled in bilingual ed between the sixth and ninth grades fail to make it out within the required three years. Some 75 percent of the students who go into the program between the first and third grades are still there after three years.

If the object of this approach is to teach the kids English, it isn’t working. Nor does the program allow much emphasis on the student’s tongue. The clearest advantage of bilingual ed, aside from providing jobs for adults, would seem to be that it allows students to grow up illiterate in two languages.

In short, these findings indicate that bilingual education is neither.

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