Bilingual ed: Well-intentioned failure

By slowing the transition to English, bilingual education squanders children's ability to learn a second language.

California, where voter initiatives often become leading indicators of nationwide social and political change, will vote on June 2 on the bitterly debated issue of bilingual education. Much more is at stake than how millions of kids learn — or don’t learn — English.

If it passes as expected, Proposition 227 would end most bilingual education in California and require students to be taught almost entirely in English. That would be a major reversal of current practice, which has generally been a well-intentioned failure, costly not only in money but in irreplaceable years of children’s lives.

So intense are feelings about the issue that recently the California Board of Education rescinded its policy requiring that all students with limited English skills be taught in their native language. Instead, decisions about bilingual education are to be made by local school districts — at least until the June referendum.

Opponents of bilingual education forced the board’s decision by citing a legal technicality. But the ruling gives schools an opening to begin at least limited change now.

Fierce arguments about how to teach children whose native language is not English have been intensifying as the number of immigrant youngsters has grown. Hispanic parents, in particular, are demanding a more effective way to bring their offspring into the American mainstream and make it easier for them to get good jobs.

But what should be an education issue is distorted by ethnic sensitivities, by political opportunism and by economic considerations. Like several referendum fights in California in recent years, this one has turned nasty because so much is at stake and feelings run so high.

What is loosely called bilingual education is rooted in kindly, good intentions to help non-English speaking children ease into school and keep up with their age group. In part it is an overreation to abuses in the past, such as pushing some Native American youngsters into boarding schools where the use of their tribal language was forbidden.

In theory, bilingual education calls for youngsters who are not proficient in English to be taught in their native language while they are gradually introduced to English. That way, they can learn at grade level in math, science and other subjects until they make the transition to mainstream classes. The process is expected to take about three or four years.

But in reality, the problems are enormous and sometimes insurmountable. Too often, bilingual classes concentrate on teaching the students’ native language, not English, delaying the transition to all-English classes for up to seven years. Some students never become competent in English.

Many immigrant youngsters come from countries where they had inadequate schooling and their only language is a street patios also spoken in their homes. Bilingual programs may spend years teaching them to be literate and fluent in their native language, with only minimal attention to English.

Some advocates of bilingual education are convinced it is the duty of the public school system to maintain the culture and linguistic heritage of immigrant children, even if it delays their moving into mainstream American culture. But this is short-sighted and politically dangerous. And it increase the risk that the United States could become Balkanized into language-segregated ethnic groups competing for turf and power instead of growing into one united people.

What should be the decisive argument here is neurological. There is no scientific doubt now that the human brain has special abilities to learn language — in spoken and written form — most easily in the early years of life. Children who are exposed to a second language spoken well and consistently in their environment also learn it easily, naturally and without confusion.

But by the time a child reaches about age 12, his brain begins to lose its ability to learn a second language easily, he must use a more arduous translation process and he will rarely outgrow the accent that results.

By slowing the transition to English, bilingual education squanders much of children’s phenomenal neurological ability to learn a second language. And segregating children in classes where their native language is used primarily deprives them of the easy opportunity to learn by immersion, as language is originally acquired.

Instead of postponing the learning of English, we should be looking for ways to begin teaching it at the earliest age possible. One of the best education investments this country could make would be to provide gentle, caring English-immersion Head Start, English-only daycare and child/family centers which could provide English-immersion for preschoolers and language classes for their parents.

Families who want their children to retain a native language and native culture are free to help them do so, of course. But the public schools are failing them when they don’t help their offspring learn English as quickly and easily as possible.

Joan Beck is a Chicago Tribune columnist and author of books on families and child-rearing. Write her c/o Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.

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