A Bilingual Program That Threatens to be Self-Defeating

SANGER, CALIF.—With bilingual education a favorite target of politicians and parents, the wonder is why bilingual educators would choose to give the program a new twist that may erode whatever public support it has left.

The innovation, called “bilingual maintenance,” is already underway at a few public schools across the country, including a small, predominantly Latino elementary school in California’s San Joaquin Valley. This year, Wilson Elementary School in Sanger launched, for kindergarten through third-grade students, Navegando Con Dos Estrellas (Navigating With Two Stars). The “two stars” are English and Spanish.

Bilingual education typically focuses on non-English-speaking students and uses native-language instruction to ease students’ eventual transition to English. At Wilson, which is 98.7% Latino and 33% limited-English proficient, the goal is “two-way bilingualism.” For English-speaking students, the program is a full-court press in foreign-language instruction, favoring an interactive conversational strategy to the endless stream of conjugated verbs that marks high school foreign-language instruction. For Spanish-speaking students, however, the program strives to teach them English–and to maintain their Spanish. One language is not stressed at the expense of the other.

The bilingual program uses two classrooms. In one, the teaching is conducted in English and, in the other, it is done in Spanish. During an average school day, students are shuttled back and forth between the two classrooms.

According to Principal Rosemarie Sancho, who first envisioned such a program 24 years ago, the response has been positive. School administrators say that the main obstacle to expanding the program to other grade levels is a staff shortage of adult teachers with bilingual credentials. Parents have the option of removing their children from the program, and some have. Yet, one-fifth of the student population is enrolled in the program, and there is even a waiting list. Sancho claims that English-speaking parents are thrilled that their children are becoming fluent in another language, while Spanish-speaking parents are equally pleased that their children, while learning English, are not losing Spanish.

Still, even if the Wilson experiment can be termed, however prematurely, an education success, bilingual maintenance could still turn out to be politically dangerous. Critics will charge that the program’s goal of maintaining a student’s native language undermines the sovereignty of English in tax-supported public schools.

Since its inception in the ’60s, bilingual-education proponents have shrewdly marketed the program as a practical way to ease the acquisition of English. Trusting in practicality and in the idea that students would learn better in their native language, supporters of bilingual education have held their ground in the face of opposition from cultural purists, conservative politicians and parents, white and brown.

Bilingual maintenance may imperil that trust since, rather than promoting the acquisition of English, it aims for a radically different goal.

Why this has happened remains unclear. Bilingual maintenance may be precisely what bilingual educators always had in mind. Many of these educators, who themselves, as elementary-school students, suffered through the unpleasant experience of being force-fed English by what were then mainly non-Latino teachers, may have come away from this experience with a less than positive attitude toward English. Now, as teachers, they intend to give it no more credibility than students’ native languages.

In any case, no matter how well-intentioned the goal of producing students who are truly bilingual, at a time when an ability to speak many languages provides advantages in an increasingly competitive national and international marketplace, this newest education innovation still seems an example of those given an inch taking a mile.

As such, bilingual maintenance will be an especially difficult sell to Americans who believe not only in facilitating students’ proficiency in English but also in clearly defining, once and for all, the role of our public schools in promoting a common language.

Ruben Navarrette, Jr. is the author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson:, Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano” (Bantam) and editor of the forthcoming, newsletter, Reconciliation

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