Bilingual Classes: A Bilateral Conflict

CHICAGO—WHEN 11-year-old Joanna Poniatowski arrived at the Hanson Park Elementary School on this city’s north-west side last year, she had traveled halfway around the world to settle in a country she had never seen at a school where most of the children spoke a language very different from he own. Her parents, who left their native Poland for Austria two days before martial law was declared, ultimately immigrated to Chicago to live in the world’s largest Polish community outside of Warsaw.

Hanson Park School, across the street from St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church, where mass is said in both Polish and English, and a stone’s thow from a Polish bakery where grandmothers converse in their native dialects, is a refuge for Joanna as she makes her transition from one world to another. Here, under the tutelage of Rafaela Mielcarek, a teacher who speaks both English and Polish, Joanna studies English as a second language and, until she masters it, pursues science, math and social studies in her native tongue.

“The purpose of the bilingual-education program is to help children who have come from Poland to learn English,” Mrs. Mielcarek said, “but they study other subjects in Polish so that they do not lose time acquiring knowledge in those areas.”

Joanna’s experience is that of many students who enter American schools each year from Poland, Mexico, Vietnam, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other countries where English is virtually unknown. To assimilate them, the schools resort to two bilingual approaches: the transformational method for transition into English, or the maintenance method, in which students also continue studying their native language. However, a recent national report and proposed Federal legislation have called these strategies into question, with critics charging that students stay in their native languages too long.

The issue has become all the more complex as the largest influx of new immigrants in more than half a century has been accompanied by reduced Federal and state funding for education.

And besides other problems, bilingual programs are hobbled by a shortage of qualified teachers. According to a Department of Education study of teacher-training programs in bilingual education, 56,000 more teachers are currently needed nationwide from kindergarten through the 12th grade but the current graduation rate of such teachersis only 2,000 a year.

Polish is one of 140 languages now spoken in the nation’s schools. Spanish is the most often spoken foreign language, and last year Vietnamese replaced Chinese as the second most frequently spoken in federally supported school programs.

Miss Poniatowski is one of 46 Polish-speaking pupils in her school. She is one of 220,000 students across the nation in the federally financed Title VII bilingual program, one of 660,000 nationwide in state-financed programs and one of an estimated 3.5 million students needing such services nationally.

For the last 17 years, under legislative mandate and a Supreme Court ruling, schools have been required to provide such students as Joanna with “the use of two languages, one of which is English, as a medium of instruction.” According to Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, when a school has between 10 and 20 students who speak the same foreign language, the school must provide a separate bilingual teacher.

Unlike an immersion program, where students are quickly placed in an English environment, the transformational and maintenance approaches assume that the fastest way to English is through the native tongue and that skills learned in one language can be transferred to another.

Gloria Zamora, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education, is among those who believe that the transformation approach is “the law of the land.”

“The underlying philosophy is to use the first language as a bridge for the second,” she said. “The objective is to move the child into English, after which he never again concentrates on a native language.”

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, there are 118,000 students of limited English ability, and Hispanic students now make up 49 percent of the school population. Students are taught English as a second language and take their basic subjects in Spanish until they are ready to enter regular English classes.

“Our purpose in bilingual education is to move youngsters into the mainstream curriculum as soon as possible,” said Ignacio DeCarrillo, director of the bilingual program for the Los Angeles schools.

At Hanson Park School in Chicago, which also has bilingual programs in Spanish and Italian as well as Polish, Joanna Poniatowski will make the transition to English classes in approximately two years. But she will also maintain her language skills in Polish through a special maintenance class taught by Mrs. Mielcarek. “The pressure is on learning English,” Mrs. Mielcarek said.”But the concern is that the Polish not be lost.”

The maintenance of their native language is a critical priority in many ethnic communities. In New York City’s bilingual programs, there are 70,000 students and 13 language groups in 684 public schools. Seventy percent of the students are in a Spanish program. At Public School 155, for example, children who have achieved proficiency in English maintain their basic skills in Spanish through a special language-arts class.

“The goal is not to be dominant in Spanish,” said Sonia Gulardo, director of bilingual education for Community School District 4 in East Harlem. “Our students are learning English. But this country needs bilingual people.”

IN Milwaukee, the school system recently began a bilingual program for 100 Vietnamese and 290 Laotians, including 140 Hmong, an ethnically distinct Laotian hill tribe. The bilingual Spanish program is aimed not only at maintaining native language skills but also developing them so that by 12th grade students are proficient in two languages.

Some critics of bilingual education simply object to teaching any language to the foreign-born other than English. Others, including the American Federation of Teachers, argue that maintaining a native language keeps the child from being assimilated into the school and becoming proficient in English.

Other critics contend that schools cannot cope adequately with the linguistic diversity of its student population and that some test scores indicate that the approaches have been ineffective. They point to the most extensive study to date, conducted in the late 1970’s, by the American Institute for Research, which found that students in Title VII Spanish programs performed at a lower level in English language arts than did non-Title VII students.

This concern is expressed in “Making the Grade,” a recent report on Federal education policy issued by the 20th Century Fund. The report recommends that schools “emphasize the primacy of English” and suggests that funds earmarked for bilingual education be used solely to teach non-English-speaking students to read and write in English.

The Bilingual Education Improvement bill now in Congress also reflects a shift in thinking on the Federal level, where the budget for Title VII last year was $134 million. It in effect eliminates the emphasis on native languages by accepting different teaching methods such as immersion and English-as-a-second-language classes not based on students’ navite language.

Opponents to this thinking argue that native languages must be maintained in bilingual programs for linguistic as well as political and social reasons. “We do believe in the primacy of English, and teaching English is our primary goal,” said Mrs. Zamora of the National Association for Bilingual Education. “But we believe it doesn’t have to be done at the sacrifice of other languages.

“There is now a large body of research, particularly in liguistics,” she said, “that supports what Unesco articulated 15 years ago: that is, no matter what language one may come to use as an adult, there are definite cognitive advantages to being educated in one’s native tongue.”

Indeed, Joan Friedenberg, associate professor of bilingual education at Florida International University, studied Spanish-speaking students in the third and fourth grades in Dade County, Florisa, and found that those who learned to read simultaneously in English and Spanish scored higher on achievement tests than those taught to read English alone. Her conclusion was that schools should not delay in teaching English but not at the expense of the native language.

There are, however, as many studies and conflicting test scores as there are opinions as to the effectiveness of bilingual education. “There is no consensus in the research community about the best results,” said Louise Terry Wilkinson, head of the educational psychology department at the University of Wisconsin. In an attempt to isolate variables that may determine the success of the bilingual programs, the National Institute of Education is currently conducting a three-year study to examine language acquisition, the impact of parental and teacher attitudes and comparison of teaching practices.

While it appears that Congress, administrators and tax-weary communities are in no mood to expand bilingual programs, schools such as Hanson Park are faced with the increasing influx of new students. “Bilingual programs can hold kids back perhaps, and keep them from assimilating as quickly as they might,” said Frank J. DePaul, the Hanson Park principal. “But at their best the programs encourage children to read and write in English and children who do not understand a subject because they don’t know the language are no longer labeled as slow.

“We claim at that we want students to learn foreign languages,” he added. “Well, here we have these children coming to our schools with a capacity for dual languages. Not maintaining those skills is a terrible waste of our human resources.”

Comments are closed.