Bilingual education continues to be caught in a fierce political tug-of-war between those who regard clinging to foreign languages as un-American and those minority activists, mainly Hispanics, who have latched onto bilingualism as a holy political crusade. Missing in these simplistic equations is a most crucial consideration: What is the best way of helping non-English-speaking immigrant children do best in school and afterward in their new country?
Experience and common sense tell us such children should be pushed to learn English as quickly and as well as possible. That’s why the Chicago Public Schools’ plan to limit bilingual education to no more than three years, except in very special cases, makes sense for both the system and the 71,000 children with limited English skills.
Though the first publicly funded bilingual education program didn’t begin until 1963, ad hoc bilingual education has been around as long as immigration itself. The mythical sink-or-swim approach–through which children miraculously learned English on their own–has no more basis in fact than the claims by today’s bilingual education bureaucrats and politicians that immigrant kids are doomed without a cumbersome, expensive and protracted education in their native language.
There always was bilingual education–at schools through bilingual teachers who formally or informally helped newcomers along, in ethnic parishes or clubs, or simply on the streets of the neighborhood where the comfort of the mother tongue clashed with the overwhelming urgency to learn English quickly in order to survive.
Chicago’s public schools do not propose to abandon non-English speaking children but to limit their stay in the artificial cocoon of bilingual education. Though most them make it out after two to three years, many stay in special programs for as long as eight years.
That’s unconscionable. Such lengthy segregation from English-speaking peers enhances neither the education of immigrant kids nor their chances of success later on in the United States.