Bilingualism and Learning Abilities

Three years after the Proposition 227 “English mandate” in public schools was passed, some speech pathologists and researchers continue to argue that bilingualism has cognitive advantages to learning. Despite protests from language pathologists about the positive implications of second language acquisition, proponents of Proposition 227 have armed themselves with stringent laws and test score results to continue monolingual education.

Authored by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Proposition 227 began as an attempt to increase standardized test score results. With a 61 percent victory in the polls in June 1998, the proposition overturned California’s 30-year-old system of bilingual education. The measure banned bilingual school programs and made it illegal to teach in languages other than English. In addition, the mandate permits lawsuits by parents and guardians against teachers, school principals and school board members who do not comply with regulations.

A year after Proposition 227 was passed, California’s standardized STAR test scores showed increases of 18 percent in reading, 21 percent in mathematics, 15 percent in language, 21 percent in spelling and 19 percent overall in elementary students grades 2-6. Unz sees this as a tremendous victory.

“When California voters were considering our measure, nearly the entire educational and political establishment predicted disaster and plummeting test scores if passed,” Unz said. “Now…the statewide test scores for immigrant students in elementary grades have risen a remarkable 20 percent.”

In the same vein, conservative pundit Linda Chavez pointed out that a 7.5 million federal bilingual education program to help Mexican American children in the Southwest learn English has failed to yield desired results — only increasing budget expenditures.

Still, there are those that believe bilingual education enhances the school curriculum. Peter Hippard, a 3rd grade teacher at the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program at Clarendon Alternative Elementary School in San Francisco, boasts that the student achievement test scores on a scale from one to 10 (10 being best), are a 10 and are at the top 2-3 percent in reading and math.

Hippard contends Proposition 227 doesn’t effect the 300 students that attend Clarendon because it’s not “an immersion program.” The core curriculum integrates Japanese language with other curriculum and teaches it separately.

“People think that learning a foreign language is a great asset,” Hippard said. “It’s been positive with the students. Foreign language learning stimulates the brain that doesn’t get touched on otherwise. It’s intellectually challenging and lets you integrate culture immediately. There’s a broader appreciation of other cultures.”

Supporters of bilingual education echo Hippard’s sentiments and raise a suspicious eyebrow at proponents of Proposition 227. Bilingual education supporters argue that monolingual education is indicative of cultural intolerance. Kenneth Tom, a speech pathologist and professor at California State University, Fullerton, argues that monolingual education continues to support the ideology that Americanism may be stymied by Asian or ethnic influences.

Tom said that the advantages of bilingual education far outweigh its disadvantages.

Cognitively, experts say, those who master more than one language have a greater grasp of conceptual understanding. Metalinguistic knowledge, or knowledge over and beyond language, is part of abstract thinking. For example, in the English language, “grandmother” has a singular meaning. However, in Asian languages, the sounds may mean mother-of-mom or mother-of-dad. Because the sounds have different associations, each culture can apply an individual concept for “grandmother.” In many ways, young children can associate many concepts to different sounds, increasing their grasp of language.

Said Tom: “The first time a bilingual kid asks if flower is fa phonetically Chinese, the child has made that association. That can happen as early as at age 2-3.

“We’re hard wired to learn another language and use symbols to mean things,” he added. “If you don’t teach a language to a kid, they’ll make one up. We think this way in terms of sounds and symbols. Deaf kids, if you leave them alone, they’ll figure out a sign language system.”

Jim Cummins, bilingual education theorist and professor of education at the University of Toronto agrees. His theory on “developmental interdependence” suggests that learning to read in one’s native language facilitates reading in a second language. The “threshold” hypothesis suggests that children’s achievement in the second language depends on the level of their mastery in their native tongue and most positive cognitive effects occur when both languages are highly developed.

Silvia Martinez, Director of Multicultural Practices and Education of the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) points out that a child may fail science or mathematics because he/she may not be able to understand the curriculum in the second language.

“We promote that the child be taught in the language that they’re strongest,” Martinez said. “It’s better to build on something they already know. If a child can communicate in Chinese, they will know the language, use it, retrieve it and understand information better in Chinese than English.

“If you are strong in one language, you should be taught other subjects in that language. And not lose out in those years,” Martinez said.

Family language and technical language may be “unbalanced” in both languages, thus, causing weakness in both languages. Modeling, purposefulness and motivation are key. Martinez said there are two conditions for effective second language acquisition. First, there needs to be “good models.” The brain learns from listening and talking to others. Soon, a person understands the rules of the language. If the mother of a child does not speak English well, that constitutes a “bad model” and the child will have difficulty learning English. The second criteria is that there must be reasons to learn this language. Many forget a language because they don’t use it often enough.

“When you have a strong first language, research says you will develop a strong second language,” Martinez said. “One understands what language is for. Sentences, usage, verbs, and tenses are part of learning. If you can read in your first language, it’s easier for the second because you understand the use of paragraphs.”

Tom added: “Being bilingual and proficient in English is really powerful. I know lots of people whose second language is English and they write beautifully, they have PhDs or they’re engineers. They can do anything with English even though it wasn’t their first language.”

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