Teaching in Two Tongues

MacNEIL: We turn now to another controversy that will be coming back to many schools with the end of summer — bilingual education. There’s a divergence of views on what constitutes bilingual education — that is, how best to teach children academic subjects when they don’t understand English. Education Secretary Bennett is proposing changes that would give local school districts more discretion in administering bilingual education programs. In California, where a multitude of foreign languages are spoken, bilingual education is the subject of growing political debate. We have a report now from Kathy McAnally of public station KQED in San Francisco.

Student: Thank you very much, Kunjai. Very much.

KATHY McANALLY [voice-over]: It’s back to school night at Hawthorne Elementary in Oakland. Gatherings like these have taken place for generations of children and parents in schools across the country. At this assembly for parents, principal Alan Young pauses often, so that his words can be translated for his audience. As the parents fan out in search of their child’s classroom, a small army of translators takes up positions around the school. This is a fairly typical scene in Oakland these days, where in this school district 64 different languages are spoken. Increasingly, the voices are Asian, for Oakland has become the new home for thousands of refugees from Indochina. Here on the playground of Franklin Elementary, 17 different languages are spoken.

JAY CLECKNER, principal, Franklin School: This is like a little United Nations. If you have ten or more at a grade level, you’re required to provide a class — bilingual class — for that group. If you have nine languages at a grade level with ten each in them, then it means they should have nine third grades.

McAnally [voice-over]: Bilingual education: the concept is to give help to non-English speaking schoolchildren, preferably from a teacher who can speak and understand the child’s own language. It is an idea that is often misunderstood. It is always emotionally and politically charged.

Sen. S. I. HAYAKAWA: Every hour taken away from hearing the English language is an hour taken away from learning the English language. So many children are going to bilingual classes — so-called.And as a result, they’re not learning English in school. And actually, they’re being gypped. They’re being defrauded of the education they’re entitled to with children growing up in America.

McANALLY [voice-over]: In 1976, the California legislature passed a law forcing school districts to provide assistance to language minority children. The law said that if there are ten or more students in an elementary grade level who speak a particular language, they should be provided with a bilingual teacher who speaks their language. It is a theory that school districts often fail to practice. In 1984, a group of frustrated Oakland parents went to court, charging that the district was not providing bilingual programs mandated by law. When the dust settled, Oakland schools were put under court order to bring their programs into legal compliance. Schools like Franklin Elementary were ordered to provide bilingual classrooms for their language minority students. So in a massive reorganization, classes were formed for each language group.

FRAN FERRARI, teacher: It was the most chaotic, heartbreaking thing that’s ever happened to me in my teaching career.

McANALLY [voice-over]: Teacher Fran Ferrari was reassigned to a group of children from Ethiopia who spoke Tugrinya.

Ms. FERRARI: I lost my entire class, and I got an entire new class right in the middle of the year.

McANALLY [voice-over]: And, since the district didn’t have a credentialed teacher fluent in both Tugrinya and English, Ferrari was asked to sign an agreement, called a waiver, promising to learn Tugrinya over a four year period.

Ms. FERRARI: The form said, “I will take courses in Tugrinya.” So I wrote on the form, “I will take courses in Tugrinya if they’re ever offered.”

McANALLY [voice-over]: One hundred and twenty-six Oakland teachers have signed such agreements, even though many of them will never find classes in the language they have promised to learn. There are classes, however, for languages like Spanish which these teachers attend after school two days a week with no extra pay. Learning Spanish is one thing, but when the expectation is that in four years a teacher will achieve fluency in a language like Cantonese, many say the agreement is a joke.

DEREK McLEOD, teacher: It’s not very realistic at all to assume that we can — or at least that I can — have any fluency at all such that I could present a lesson to the students in two languages. So that is an unrealistic goal. On the other side of the coin, it lets me understand the problems that my children are up against, not to mention the performance anxiety learning to speak a new language for the first time.

McANALLY$0 [voice-over]: For these children, the possibility of bilingual instruction is extremely remote. They are Lao Mien — refugees from the mountains of Northern Laos. There are no bilingual teachers for them, and perhaps never will be, since the Mien are a preliterate culture with no written language. This family came to Oakland less than a year ago and has four children in the public schools. This is their first experience with education, reading and writing. Two thousand Mien have now settled in Oakland. When Mien children began pouring into the public schools, they and their parents found a bureaucracy that was not prepared for them. Since the Mien had originally came from Laos, the schools mistakenly assigned them to bilingual classes with Laotian speaking children. They were taught in a language they found incomprehensible and handled tools, like pencils and books, that they’d never seen before.

GEORGE RATHMELL, Westlake Junior High: We weren’t used to getting people who were not educated, who couldn’t read and write. We’d had immigrants, of course, from many different countries for a long time. But when we talk about hill tribes coming into the city with no preparation, it’s a new ball game.

mcNALLY [voice-over]: It wasn’t until 1984 — five years after the first influx of Mien — that the Oakland schools found out the Mien were not Laotian. Some of the children are now fortunate enough to get help from Mien speaking tutors. Farong Saeturn, one of the few educated Mien, works as an instuctional aide in the Oakland schools.

FARONG SAETURN, instructional aide [subtitles]: They don’t know how Enlish words, and when it’s explained in English, they don’t know it. So I have to use my language to tell them, “In my language, it’s this, but in English you say it like that.”

McANALLY [voice-over]: When Farong’s two daughters came to Oakland five years ago, they also found themselves in a culture that was difficult to comprehend.

NYING SAETURN, Mien Immigrant: Everything’s new to me and strange. When I got to airport, I said, “Those American people are so tall and with the blond hair.” I thought my life has changed a lot.

McANALLY [voice-over]: But Nying and her younger sister, Tut, have adapted. Today Tut is considered an exceptional student. She’s enrolled in the gifted English program at Westlake Junior High. Nying is now in the ninth grade, and, while still learning English, she’s also fulfilling a school requirement by studying a foreign language, German. Nying and Tut Saeturn are immigrant success stories. Opponents of bilingual education often point to examples like Tut and Nying, who have led special help, but no bilingual teachers, and ask if it is necessary to have bilingual programs for other language groups.

Sen. HAYAKAWA: What’s different now from the situation which our grandmothers encountered when they — we had no special program, no bilingual education for them, is that in our enormous compassion for everybody with any kind of handicap, like the handicap of not knowing English, we try to meet them halfway. What we’re doing is building in handicaps instead of helping the handicapped.

McANALLY [voice-over]: Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction, supports bilingual education, but only as a short term tool to help kids move into regular classrooms.

BILL HONIG, superintendent of public instruction: I don’t mind cultural maintenance. I think that’s, as a byproduct, is something that’s useful — to maintain the language and have it as a resource. But not at the expense of learning English or learning culture or learning history and learning these other subjects.

McANALLY [voice-over]: California’s bilingual education law will be up for review this year, and some conservative legislators are hoping to take advantage of criticisms of the law to get it off the books altogether. But supporters of bilingual education fear that if there isn’t a law forcing school districts to something, some schools might opt to do nothing at all.

JOHN VASCONCELLOS, California assemblyman: Bilingual was enacted because districts were not attending to these kids’ needs. It wasn’t like we just invented this thing to have a nice little law on the books. It was because kids’ needs weren’t being met.

McANALLY [voice-over]: While the babble of political rhetoric over bilingual education continues, more language minority children enroll in our schools every year. And the politicians must decide what to do about non-English speaking kids now and in the future. Educators predict that by 1990, fully half of the children in California classrooms won’t be fluent English speakers.

MacNEIL: That report was by Kathy McAnally of KQED, San Francisco.

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