LOS ANGELES, Calif. Oct. 27—Arizona voters are about to decide whether to throw out bilingual education in favor of teaching English to immigrant children via the sink or swim method of “immersion.” So, both sides are churning out statistics supporting their positions.

Is there anyway to gain perspective on all this dueling data? Fortunately, a few disinterested scientists are offering some non-numerical guidance through the fundamentals of how kids learn languages.

In California, immigrant students’ tests scores shot up after a 1998 initiative banned bilingual schooling. The founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, Ken Noonan, school superintendent of Oceanside, even changed his mind. “Thirty years of commitment to something is hard just to set aside, but I think I was wrong,” he comments, adding that his immigrant students now “love school, they’re absorbing the English, learning quickly.”

This situation places the bilingual industry, which has forecasted doom for California’s immigrant children, on the defensive. Much of America’s English-language press has now jumped on the anti-bilingual bandwagon. In reply, supporters of bilingual education have unleashed a barrage of statistics.

For example, Stephen Krashen, professor of education at the University of Southern California and possibly the foremost academic proponent of bilingual education, argues that nothing much can be learned from the new California test scores, noting that “districts that kept bilingual education improved, districts that never did bilingual education improved. Everybody improved.” In five e-mails to this reporter, Krashen cited numerous studies supporting his conclusion: “There is overwhelming evidence from the research literature that bilingual education is effective.”

In turn, bilingual education’s critics deride Krashen’s conclusions, methods and hands-on knowledge of how bilingual education really works. Ron Unz, the software entrepreneur who sponsored California Proposition 227 banning bilingual education, argues that the schools that switched to English immersion improved more than the rest, adding, “If Krashen actually began visiting bilingual programs, he might be very, very surprised.”

Arguments based on school studies, such as the endless debate over the effect of George W. Bush’s school reforms in Texas, tend to be inconclusive, confusing and mind-numbingly complex for various reasons.

First, schools are always changing in many ways. So, the effects of any single policy tend to be hard to tease out from other variables that drive test scores up or down. For example, MIT professor Wayne O’Neil, a supporter of bilingual education, suggests, “The best guess is that whatever ‘success’ Oceanside has had is more a result of smaller class size, teaching to the test, and other uncontrolled-for factors than it is a result of Prop 227.”

Second, no one ever agrees precisely on the goal of any school policy, so advocates brandish the pet studies that support their own positions. For example, is the goal of bilingual education to get immigrants to read English? To perform at grade level in all subjects? To speak English without an accent? Or is it to prevent children from losing their original languages so they can continue talking to their grandmothers and remain part of a cohesive ethnic group?

Third, since the term “bilingual education” (or, for that matter, “English immersion”) covers a host of different policies, unwelcome results can always be waved away with arguments about the “wrong kind” of bilingualism or immersion. Even when a scholar’s favorite flavor performs badly, he or she can blame the inconvenient outcome on incompetent implementation.

Finally, the kind of double-blind tests used in medical research, where doctors don’t know which half of their patients are getting the placebo, are impossible in school research.

So, it may help to step outside education departments to learn about what scientists studying language acquisition — child psychologists, linguists, cognitive scientists and anthropologists — have to say about the fundamentals. Much of the rank and file in these fields publicly favors bilingualism, such as the Linguistics Society of America’s formal opposition to Unz’s Proposition 227.

Yet, many well-known scientists have raised serious questions about both bilingualism and English immersion. They tend to worry especially about two areas: peer pressure and the rapid decline in a child’s ability to absorb a new language.

Judith Rich Harris is a New Jersey grandmother and author of child psychology textbooks. She suggests that “there is a window of opportunity before puberty in which most children can learn a new language quickly and well.” But she has emphasized what happens on the playground rather than in the classroom.

“Language and accent follow what I call the ‘majority rules rule,'” she has argues. Children who come into the group with a different language or accent will quickly pick up the majority’s language and accent in order to conform. If, for example, a child moves with his or her parents from Boston to Louisiana, he or she will soon be speaking with a Louisiana accent, though the parents will always sound like Bostonians.”

Harris goes on to note, “The problem with bilingual education is that these programs create peer groups of children who do not speak English well. They don’t have to learn English in order to communicate with the children they want to play with, and they don’t have to learn English in order to be accepted by their classmates. Their motivation to learn English is no different from their motivation to learn the state capitals or the multiplication tables. Instead of being a vital part of their social life, it’s just another boring chore assigned to them by the teacher.”

Mass immigration, however, means there are no easy solutions. Harris points out, “The immersion method works best when there are just a few kids in the school who don’t speak English. When there are a lot of kids who share some other language, it’s always going to be an uphill job to convince them to switch to English.”

Bilingual education supporter Jill Kerper Mora of San Diego State documents the size of the problem. “Only one out of every three English language learners in the United States attends a school where native English speakers are the majority in the student population, and one-third attend schools where 90 percent of their classmates are from their same native language group.”

Another key issue often overlooked in the brouhaha is how little time schools have to teach English before a young child’s gift for learning new language ebbs. When contacted, the three scientists who are possibly the biggest names in the science of language acquisition tended to agree that young children have an innate skill for new languages that fades later. MIT linguist Noam Chomsky is famous for demonstrating that children are born with an innate ability to learn words and grammar. He suggests caution on the subject but pointed out, “There is no dispute about the fact that pre-puberty (in fact, much earlier), children have unusual facility in acquiring new languages.”

Chomsky’s younger MIT colleague, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, author of the bestsellers “The Language Instinct” and “How the Mind Works,” states, “When it comes to learning a second language, the younger the better. In a large study of Chinese immigrants who entered the U.S. at different ages, those who arrived after puberty showed the worst English language skills. Still, this finding of ‘younger is better’ extended to far younger ages. People who began to learn English at six ended up on average more proficient than those who began at seven, and so on.” As an illustration, Pinker points to the famously thick German accent of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who arrived in America at age fourteen. In contrast, his younger brother developed a standard American accent.

Pinker’s arch-rival, Terrence W. Deacon, a biological anthropologist at Boston University and author of “The Symbolic Species,” replies, “I have to agree with Steve Pinker[on this one particular issue]that learning a language early in life can be an advantage for developing language fluency and sophistication.”

Others dispute whether there really is a biological switch that turns off at puberty. Mora suggests that the reason children are better at learning a new language is because “Children are less inhibited and self-conscious than adults. They are willing to take more risks and interact with native speakers of the target language more as a consequence.”

Deacon, too, doubts Pinker’s theory that there is a special language-acquisition instinct that shuts down around puberty. He believes that the impressive language learning abilities of young children stem from “some special plasticity and adaptability of immature brains with less committed neural circuitry.” He expects that puberty is just a milestone on a long downward spiral in the ability to learn new languages: “I think the empirical evidence in many sub-fields of language neuropsychology shows a gradual reduction of language learning plasticity over middle childhood, probably beginning about age seven. But I think we can generally agree that especially before age seven there exists the best possibility for thorough recruitment of brain systems for language.”

Deacon, however, points out that on this issue it doesn’t particularly matter whether Pinker or himself is correct. “This does not affect the neurolinguistic consequences.” And even if Mora’s view that young children learn best merely because they are less self-conscious is true, that still seems to support Pinker’s “the younger the better” rule of thumb.

Deacon argues, “English immersion is not the same thing if begun at age 3 to 4 or at 8 to 9 or at 13 to 14. Unless begun at a very early age (e.g. ideally well before age 7) and maintained and used in diverse contexts, there is a good probability that the second language will never be so fully developed as the first language.”

Finally, this perspective also sheds light on the mirror-image question of when native-born parents should have their kids taught a foreign language such as French or Spanish. Deacon suggests that American-born parents are making a mistake by letting their children wait until high school. He states, “America’s efforts to teach other languages in the schools are minimalist and almost entirely postponed until after puberty in most school systems, guaranteeing little assimilation of a second language.”

Comments are closed.