WHEN the Twentieth Century Fund recently urged that Federal money ”now going to bilingual programs be used to teach non-English speaking children how to speak, read and write English,” it reignited a smoldering old controversy. The recommendation implied that bilingual education has failed to promote fluency in English, and it underscored its criticism by calling it ”a grave error” not to recognize ”the primacy of English.”

In bilingual education classes, non-English-speaking children are taught by teachers who are able to help them with their regular subjects in their native tongue, while at the same time teaching them English.

A preview of the rekindled controversy was provided by the dissent of one of the panel’s own members, Carlos R. Hortas, chairman of the department of Romance languages at Hunter College. While supporting the demand that all students master English, he called bilingual programs essential to the education of children not at home with English.

Even stronger opposition to the panel’s views came from Jack John Olivero, president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. In a letter to The Times, he rejected the panel’s approach as a ”swim-or-sink attitude.” He cited a 1974 ruling by the Supreme Court (Lau v. Nichols) which said: ”Those who do not understand English are certain to find their classroom experience wholly incomprehensible and in no way meaningful.”

Clearly, a need exists to look at the issue both in historical and in pedagogical terms. By his use of the ”swim-or-sink” image, Mr. Olivero quite properly recalls past mistakes, and even cruelties, committed by the public schools in dealing with immigrant children. By ignoring these youngsters’ handicaps, the schools denied them true equality of opportunity. Although some first-generation Americans, proud of their self-made success, cite their achievments as proof that the ”swimor-sink” method works, they overlook the many others who never lived up to their potential, or never made it into the mainstream of society.

Only reactionary educators would want to return to such a forced and unaided ”Americanization” of non-English-speaking children. Nor do modern educators support the view, widely held in the past, that the immigrant child’s original language ought to be obliterated as a sign of loyalty to ”the new country.” In fact, the Twentieth Century Fund emphasized that every pupil ought to have the opportunity to learn a second language, thus clearly indicating that it does not want to wipe out an already existing proficiency.

Still, the controversy is kept alive by the lack of either any calm pedagogical examination of a variety of options to deal with children who need to be taught English, or of the shortcomings of existing programs.

Bilingual education has worked in many classrooms. But it can accomplish its goal only if the teachers themselves are truly bilingual and, in addition, are competent in the subjects, such as mathematics or history, that they teach; and only if they understand their mission to make the children fluent in English as rapidly as possible so that they can move full-time into regular classes.

The most serious obstacle to achieving those goals is the lack of teachers to play that difficult role. Last year, the Department of Education reported that about 56,000 such teachers would be needed, but that fewer than 2,000 such teachers were currently being produced.

The problem is complicated by the fact that to provide a full range of bilingual education, some 50 different languages would have to be covered -a fact that gets lost because the spokesmen for bilingual education tend quite naturally to be Hispanic, the largest non-English-speaking group.

In the absence of an adequate pool of truly bilingual teachers, complaints persist that many bilingual classes are taught by people deficient in English or in the subjects they teach. This compounds the children’s language and academic problems.

When educators speak of immersion as an alternative, the technical term does not imply a return to the swim-or-sink attitude. Immersion is a pedagogical term for language instruction through a carefully supervised environment in which only English is spoken. The method has been used successfully in schools, colleges and private language instruction. The point is to teach the language intensively, quickly and single-mindedly. Many experts believe that it is the most efficient way. If it were applied to the public school scene, it might mean that children would, for a limited period, not keep up fully with their regular subjects, but they could be helped to catch up once their mastery of English made this possible.

Another closely related method is known as ”English as a Second Language” (E.S.L.), taught by teachers trained in linguistics and has the advantage that it can deal simultaneously with students who speak a variety of native languages. In a way, it is a modified version of immersion.

The issue should be resolved in a simple, humane and common-sense requirement: to make all children proficient in English as quickly and as efficiently as possible. There is no mandate for a single method; there is no proof that any single method will work best under all conditions; there is no excuse for any Federal policy that imposes or subsidizes any single method. But there are sound reasons for Federal support of any strategy, determined by expert local authority, designed to move all children into the English-language mainstream of school and sociey.

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