Unilingual Education

California?s 4-month experiment with immersion points the way

Schools in Michigan and in other states with large numbers of recent immigrants should take heart—and inspiration—from their California counterparts.

Six months after voters there approved an initiative banning bilingual education, non-English-speaking youngsters are learning English faster than many people, including some opponents, imagined. What?s more, they?re doing so with general ease and enthusiasm for their reading and writing assignments.

That should not come as a surprise. Anyone familiar with early childhood development knows that children in the primary grades absorb new languages like sponges. If exposed to foreign languages early and often enough, they will master them with amazing speed.

Bilingual education deliberately slows down the language learning, making English acquisition in the best of cases a four-year process; in the worst, a lifelong struggle. Non-English-speaking students are placed into special classes where their native languages dominate, while gradually being introduced into traditional classrooms over four years. Now California requires that all students, regardless of their native language, attend a regular classroom from the start.

For reasons that in hindsight appear to have been more political than scientific, various groups heatedly resisted Californians? wise effort to eliminate bilingual education. Some said they feared students automatically would fall behind in their schoolwork; others, that they wished to spare the children the anxiety of a harsh first year in a foreign school. Still others claimed that refusing to teach non-English-speaking children in their native languages violated their civil rights. What few admitted was that behind such arguments were vested interests that rarely had much to do with the welfare of the children.

In any case, those arguments don?t hold up. In light of the latest findings, even top bilingual education proponents in California are having to concede that things are better than they originally had thought.

However, educators do need to look at the performance of older students who are not as quick to catch on to new languages as younger students. The best way to help them is through intensive English courses, something California?s new anti-bilingual education law allows for in the first year.

There?s no reason for handicapping immigrant children by denying them mastery of English as soon as possible. To their credit, Californians already have ceased doing so. The rest of the nation should follow.

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