The time has come to face facts: Bilingual education in the United States has failed. Worse, its effects are the opposite of those intended.
The original idea of the 1968 federal bilingual-education law, championed by then-Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D) of Texas, was to teach very young Mexican-American children in Spanish for a short time until their English was good enough for school.
Those good intentions, as often happens with government programs, over time shifted into federal mandates that states and local schools offer bilingual education to Hispanic or other students whose first language is not English. Now most first-grade students from Spanish-speaking homes are taught to read and write in Spanish rather than English, the language of government and commerce in this country. Once Hispanic students get into bilingual programs, their parents often find the children are in a trap they can hardly escape. Their English often does not improve because they aren’t using it. Sometimes students have been shunted off into bilingual programs on the basis of a resident Spanish-speaking grandparent.
The statistics are sobering. Census Bureau data show that the less English a student speaks, the more likely he or she is to drop out of school. The highest dropout rate is among Spanish-speakers who speak English “with difficulty.” A New York City Board of Education study found that 92 percent of Korean-language children, 87 percent of Russian-language children, and 83 percent of Chinese-language children had placed out of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs three years after entering kindergarten. These children got most of their instruction in English. By contrast, only 51 percent of Spanish-speaking children and 59 percent of those speaking Haitian-Creole exited bilingual programs in which instruction was in their original tongue.
Language learning comes from repetition and speaking practice. Small children do it best because they have few inhibitions and are not afraid to make mistakes, and because they have not lapsed into language patterns that appear harder to break as people’s language habits become more inflexible. Experience with previous and present immigrants, and with foreign-language immersion programs for English-speaking elementary-school students, shows that young children learn English fastest when forced to do so. And it doesn’t matter what their native tongue is. (Were more adults willing to try, they too would find this natural language learning is the most practical.)
From late elementary school on, children can have a more difficult time learning a new language, although each individual is different. For them, teaching in English with special help from ESL teachers is best.
One might ask, as many Hispanic parents around the country do, why bilingual programs continue. The answers are: 1) the ideology of some members of the educational establishment, who are loath to abandon pet theories (and their jobs), and 2) government funding. The more bilingual students a school district has, the more money it can pump from the federal government. Thus, following well-known bureaucratic laws, the programs take on a life of their own as those who benefit most from them – bilingual-program educators – fight to preserve their bureaucracy.
We have no desire to eliminate the speaking of other languages in the United States. The ability to speak more than one language is ever more necessary in a global economy. But “bilingual” programs are taking that ability away from millions of pupils. They can learn Spanish at home, at church, and yes, even at school. But they will not be able to compete in the job market if they do not speak English as well. Society is practicing a cruel deception on immigrant parents and children if it pretends otherwise.
It’s time to stop the bilingual-education experiment and try something that works – an ESL-style program.