Putting Tongues in Check

Should Bilingual Schooling Be Silenced? Critics Think So, Yet a New Study Shows That It Works

IN THE SUNNY SUBURBAN SPRAWL OF WESTMINSTER, California, a city of 72,000 southeast of Los Angeles, the first-grade classrooms of the Neomia B. Willmore School offer two distinct recipes for the American melting pot. In Room B-3, an English-immersion class, teacher Judy Nguyen plinks on the piano. Winsome, if off-key, her 29 charges launch into “My country ’tis of thee,” fading away uncertainly as they reach the line “Land of the Pilgrims’ pride.” About half the children are native Vietnamese speakers; nine are Hispanic. But the book box holds the Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss; cheery posters list the days of the week and the months of the year–in English only. At day’s end the lesson is about “contours.” With crayons, the children are to outline a picture of an apple. Most comply easily, but six-year-old Tuyen, uncomprehending, gaily colors the inside of the fruit. In Room A-2, a bilingual class, 30 first-graders, all Latinos, belt out their favorite song, El Rancho Grande. In the book corner: Los Tres Cochinitos–The Three Little Pigs. On the wall: the seasons, the months, the days, in both Spanish and English. In a mock interview, teacher Marina Williams asks Fabiola, a gap-toothed charmer, “Senora Presidente, what should children do in school?” Fabiola shoots back, “Aprender ingles!”–learn English. But one small boy has another idea: “Bailar!”–dance. The teacher takes the hint, winding up the day with a session of “la quebradita,” a sort of Mexican jitterbug.

At Willmore, 78% of the students do not speak English well enough to follow a standard American curriculum. Like thousands of public schools across the country, Willmore faces a dilemma: Should immigrant children be instructed entirely in English? Or should they be taught academic subjects in their native language while gradually learning English? For three decades, researchers have debated the complex cognitive issues. Now, however, arguments have moved beyond pedagogy. Bilingual education is exploding into one of the nation’s most divisive political issues, fueled, on one hand, by a backlash against immigration and affirmative action and, on the other, by the failures and ideological strictures of some existing bilingual programs. Last fall, for example, when Westminster officials pushed teachers to take Spanish and Vietnamese classes or face a transfer, the teachers’ union organized a takeover of the school board, voting in three new members who have vowed to phase out bilingual classes such as Marina Williams’. “It is unconstitutional to force American citizens to learn a foreign language in order to keep their job,” says Michael Verringia, the new school-board president.

The issue has taken on national dimensions. Last month Senate majority leader Robert Dole injected it squarely into the presidential campaign, declaring, “We must stop the practice of multilingual education as a means of instilling ethnic pride or as a therapy for low self-esteem.” The red-meat rhetoric pleased conservatives, and Dole plans to introduce legislation this month declaring English the nation’s “official language.” But in an interview Friday, he said he will not seek to end bilingual programs so long as they “ensure that people learn English in a timely fashion.” Some pending bills, however, would virtually dismantle the Federal Government’s 27-year support for bilingual schooling. Congressional budget proposals would slash current bilingual education funding as much as 66%.

Leaping into the fray last week, President Clinton told a thousand cheering supporters at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus dinner, “The issue is whether or not we’re going to value the culture, the traditions of everybody and also recognize that we have a solemn obligation to let these children live up to the fullest of their God-given capabilities.” But the issue does not divide purely along partisan lines. Although House Speaker Newt Gingrich and G.O.P. presidential hopefuls Richard Lugar and Patrick Buchanan back the English-only movement, G.O.P. Governor George Bush of Texas left popular bilingual programs untouched in his recent school reforms. In Florida, another key primary state, politically powerful Cuban Americans–most of whom are Republicans–were dismayed by Dole’s stance. “Attacking bilingual education here is like attacking Mom and apple pie,” says Mercedes Toural, head of Dade County’s bilingual programs.

Nationwide, of the 43.6 million children attending public school, some 2.6 million are non-English-speaking–an increase of 76% in the past decade. As new waves of immigrants pour in, conflict grows over how to assimilate them. In New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, the District of Columbia and California, bilingual programs have recently been challenged by parents, teachers and school boards. Three-quarters of the young newcomers live in five states: California, New York, Florida, Texas and Illinois. Nonetheless, 43% of U.S. school districts have at least some non-English-speaking children. One in six U.S. teachers has non-English speakers in the classroom. In Columbus Junction, Iowa, where a third of the students are the offspring of Hispanic pork packers, principal Becky Furlong fears that federal budget cuts will wipe out her bilingual kindergarten. Meanwhile, at the elementary school in De Queen, Arkansas, principal Cindy Hale has no plans to teach the Latino children of local poultry workers–now a quarter of her students–in Spanish. “The quicker they adapt to speaking English, the better off they are,” she says.

Twenty-one years ago, a U.S. Supreme Court decision established the constitutional precedent for bilingual education when it found that San Francisco had discriminated against 1,800 Chinese children by failing to help them overcome their linguistic handicap. Last month the legal issues seemed to come full circle as a group of Brooklyn parents filed suit against the New York State commissioner of education, claiming that tens of thousands of children are “languishing” in poorly run bilingual programs. The suit charges that American-born children with Latino surnames and low test scores are consigned to Spanish-language classes even if their dominant language is English. Fearful of losing federal and state bilingual funds, schools allegedly pressure children to remain in bilingual classes far longer than necessary. “I missed out on three years of work,” says 13-year-old Ariel Pena, who tried unsuccessfully to opt out of his school’s bilingual class. Children from grades 5 through 8 were mixed in one classroom. “We had the same math book, back to page one, for two years in a row,” adds Pena, a plaintiff in the suit. The state will fight the suit on the grounds that many children need more than three years of bilingual classes, but it will now review cases more carefully.

New York City schools have experienced a 49% increase in non-English-speaking immigrants in six years. Besides Spanish, classes are now taught in Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian, Korean, Arabic, Vietnamese, Polish, Bengali and French. A few schools offer a full program in the student’s native language, but most give at best an hour of native-language assistance, along with an hour of instruction in English as a Second Language (ESL). At Daniel Carter Beard Junior High in the borough of Queens, teacher Michael Cao faces a daunting task. His seventh-graders, most of whom speak little or no English, spend most of the day in mainstream classes. And then, in just 45 minutes, Cao must speed them through the baffling vocabulary they have encountered. Energy, gasoline, electron, molecule, dilute, bubble, wave, atom–all new words to be explained in Mandarin. And, for a slender youth in the front row, in Cantonese. In three years, under state rules, newcomers are to be fluent enough to graduate into all-day mainstream classes. In practice, few are-and schools are caught between researchers who decry the unrealistic expectations and parents who blame the bilingual programs for not fulfilling them.

WHILE PUBLIC OPINION seems polarized between sink-or-swim nostalgics and politically correct diversitarians, serious research increasingly points toward a consensus: children learn English faster and are more likely to excel academically if they are given several years of instruction in their native language first. In a 1991 study endorsed by a National Academy of Sciences research team, David Ramirez, now a professor at California State University, followed 2,000 Latino schoolchildren. “It is a myth that if you want children to learn English, you give them nothing but English,” says Ramirez. Both English-immersion and bilingual methods will fail, however, if classes are too crowded, taught by unqualified teachers, lacking in appropriate materials, or filled with the wrong combination of students–conditions that are all too common.

Later this year two George Mason University professors will release the largest study ever conducted on bilingual education, comparing the performance of 42,000 non-English-speaking students over 13 years. Although states such as Massachusetts and Illinois now push students out of bilingual classes within three years, the researchers found that children who had six years of bilingual education in well-designed programs performed far better on standardized English tests in 11th grade. Even with bilingual classroom aides and esl training, children who are plunged into an English environment before they are fluent “are just left out of the discussion in their mainstream classes,” according to Professor Virginia Collier. “It shows up in the long term, when the academic going gets tough.”

The George Mason study also underscores the value of bilingual education’s most avant-garde experiments. The highest achievers were children at “two-way” schools, where English-language children and non-English speakers are mixed together, with half the curriculum taught in a foreign language and half taught in English. In Chicago five years ago, there were three such schools teaching in Spanish and English; today there are 20. In the District of Columbia, the Oyster Bilingual Elementary School is a pioneer in two-way education. Its student body is 58% Hispanic, 26% white, 12% black and 4% Asian, and after six years of Spanish-English curriculum, its sixth-graders score at a ninth-grade level in reading and a 10th-grade level in math. At a two-way Chinese-English program in Public School 1 in New York City’s Chinatown, three eight-year–olds–a Hispanic, a Chinese and an African American–last week recited a poem they had written together in Cantonese and English. Patricia Nixon, a Manhattan resident who has sent her third-grader Anita there since kindergarten, boasts that the child can read storefront signs in Chinese and converse in the language. “She has a great opportunity,” says Nixon, beaming.

Not all communities are braced for the challenge of multilingualism. At Salina Elementary School in the shadow of the hulking Ford Rouge auto plant in Dearborn, Michigan, 90% of the students are native speakers of Arabic. Academically, many of them lag far behind other students in the district. Earlier this year, spurred by the possibility of a five-year, $ 5 million federal grant, school superintendent Jeremy Hughes proposed forming a two-way Arabic-English program. Not only was the proposal rejected by the local board of education after heated public criticism, but it opened the way for a wholesale attack on bilingual education, directed at the city’s Arab population. “This is America. Public money for public education should be used for English only,” says Stephen Kovach, a medical-supplies consultant.

In California, home to 45% of the nation’s non-English-speaking students, the magnitude of demographic change is breathtaking. Thirty years ago, California’s schools were more than three-quarters non-Latino white. Today the proportion has dropped to 44%. A quarter of the state’s 5 million public-school students–more than 1 million children–“do not speak English well enough to understand what is going on in a classroom,” according to the 1993 report of a state watchdog agency. That agency charged that California’s bilingual bureaucracy had “calcified into a self-serving machine…an ideologically based program more concerned with the intrinsic virtues of bilingualism and biculturalism” than with teaching English.

While many California school districts embrace bilingualism, others, such as Stockton, Oakland and Westminster, have defied the imposition of native-language instruction, and the state has threatened to cut off millions of dollars in school aid. The debate heated up this summer as the state board of education, prompted by calls for more local control, made it easier for districts to opt out of bilingual programs. Westminster, which had hired only nine certified bilingual teachers–far fewer than the 90 required by the state to service its 4,000 Vietnamese and Spanish speakers–is now applying for permission to eliminate native-language instruction entirely. If granted, that will mean classes such as Marina Williams’ will soon disappear. And in the squat, brick Willmore school, for better or worse, no one will be dancing la quebradita.

–With reporting by Ann Blackman/Washington, Cathy Booth/Miami, Wendy Cole/Dearborn and Jenifer Mattos/New York

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