The other day, in a statement defending bilingual education, Nathan Quinones, the New York City Schools Chancellor, said, ”It is not a subversive activity in this country to learn a language other than English.”
With that observation
Mr. Quinones tapped into the passions that underlie the controvery surrounding bilingual education. On its most visible level, the dispute is about educational methodology, but underneath it is a debate over what kind of country the United States is to be.
What complicates the issue is the inconclusiveness of the research on bilingual education. There is no strong body of evidence commending one approach over another as the best way to deal with students who have limited proficiency in English.
Some people worry that bilingual education could be a vehicle for undermining the primacy of the English language and for impeding the Americanization of the young. Their worst fears are exacerbated by a segment of bilingual education advocates who argue that Spanish should rank with English as a main language in the country and that schools ought to help students preserve their native cultures.
In contrast, others say that letting a child learn in his native language in no way slows down the acquisition of English and, in fact, bolsters their confidence and keeps them from falling behind in academic subjects.
Role of Spanish at Issue
Many national backgrounds are represented among the four million students with limited proficiency in English, but those of Hispanic origin make up three-quarters of the total and constitute an even higher portion of the students who spend four or more years in bilingual education. The question of what role Spanish is to have in the future of the country is central to the debate over bilingualism.
William J. Bennett, the Secretary of Education, stoked the controversy with a speech Thursday in New York City. He said the Reagan Administration wanted to encourage local school districts to pursue methods of bilingual education other than instruction in a student’s native language, an approach widely used throughout the country.
Presumably, the main alternative is the English as a Second Language method, which involves a course giving a student an intensive grounding in English while he attends regular subject-matter courses in English, not in his native language.
Early Method Out of Favor
Few educators these days openly advocate the so-called total submersion approach in which a new student is thrown into regular classes with no extra aid whatsoever in learning English. Furthermore, this method, the standard for generations of immigrants, has been illegal since 1974, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Lau v. Nichols that added help of some kind must be given.
The major study of bilingual education sponsored by the Federal Government, published in 1978, found that students in programs in which they were taught in their native language made no achievement gains beyond those that would have been expected had they been taught their subjects in English. The study, conducted by the American Institutes for Research, gathered information on 7,700 students in the second and third grades at more than 100 schools.
More limited studies, focusing on one class or one school, provide mixed results.
A review of several hundred studies was made in the early 1980’s by two policy analysts in the Department of Education, who identified 39 of the studies as scientifically valid. After sifting through the findings they decided there was no justification for designating any method as better than another in educating students of limited English proficiency.
”Too little is known about the various factors affecting learning in the language-minority child to permit program prescription from the Federal level,” Keith A. Baker and Adirana A. de Kanter wrote in an article that appeared two years ago in American Education, a journal published by the Department of Education.
However, Kenji Hakuta, author of the forthcoming book ”Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism,” to be published by Basic Books, asserts that research on child development supports the case for bilingual education regardless of the findings on the programs themselves.
”What is important is the research that shows that learning a second language is most successful when there is a strong foundation in the native language,” said Mr. Hakuta, a psychology professor at Yale University. ”Academic skills taught in one language transfer to the other language so that if you teach reading strategies to children in their native language they will employ similar strategies in English.”
The Supreme Court verdict asssures that programs of some sort will be offered to students lacking proficiency in English. Mr. Bennett’s pronouncement has lent fresh encouragement to those who have been eager for a signal that the Federal Government would be more sympathetic to an approach that makes less use of a child’s native language.
The mission of the public schools has traditionally been as much to socialize youngsters to American customs as to educate them in the three R’s. Placing less stress on instruction in native language is likely to be seen as a victory for Americanization, but the uncertain research findings leave open the question of whether it is a victory for education.