Bilingualism vs. Bilingual Education

A system that ensures failure is kept alive by the flow of federal dollars. A 1998 initiative would bring change.

As each new microchip and fiber-optic cable shrinks the circumference of our world, more and more Americans recognize the practical importance of bilingualism. Even today, entrepreneurs or employees fluent in Chinese, Japanese or Spanish have a distinct edge over their English-only peers.

But if other languages such as Chinese or Spanish are of growing world importance, English ranks in a class by itself. Although English is not and never has been America’s official national language, over the past 20 years it has rapidly become the entire world’s unofficial language, utterly dominating the spheres of science, technology and international business. Fluency in Spanish may provide a significant advantage, but lack of literacy in English represents a crippling, almost fatal disadvantage in our global economy. For this reason, the better public and private schools in Europe, Asia and Latin America all provide as much English as early as possible to young children.

During this same period, many of America’s own public schools have stopped teaching English to young children from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Influenced by avant-garde pedagogy and multiculturalist ideology, educational administrators have adopted a system of bilingual education that is usually “bilingual” in name only.

Too often, young immigrant children are taught little or no English–in Los Angeles, only 30 minutes a day, according to the school district’s longstanding bilingual master plan. This is based on the ridiculous notion that too much English too early will damage a child’s self-esteem and learning ability. Hundreds of thousands of these American schoolchildren spend years being taught grammar, reading, writing and all other academic subjects in their own “native” language–almost always Spanish–while receiving just tiny doses of instruction in English, taught as a foreign language.

As one might expect, the results of such an approach to English instruction are utterly dismal. Of the 1.3 million California schoolchildren–a quarter of our state’s total public school enrollment–who begin each year classified as not knowing English, only about 5% learn English by year’s end, implying an annual failure rate of 95% for existing programs.

Defenders of the status quo argue away these devastating statistics by claiming that 5-year-old children normally require about seven years to learn a new language and actually have much more difficulty learning second languages than teenagers or adults; these are academic dogmas with absolutely no basis in reality.

On the other hand, the dreadful flaws in the current classification methodology are kept well hidden. In California, children from immigrant or Latino backgrounds are categorized as not knowing English if they merely score below average on English tests, meaning that unknown numbers of children whose first and only language is English spend their elementary school years trapped in Spanish-only “bilingual” programs.

The real dynamic driving this bizarre system is special government funding. School districts are provided with extra dollars for each child who doesn’t know English. This generates the worst sort of perverse incentive, in which administrators are financially rewarded for not teaching English to young children or pretending that they haven’t learned the language; schools are annually penalized for each child who becomes fluent in English.

Under such a scheme, the widespread educational fiction that young children require seven years to learn English suddenly becomes understandable, as a necessary, enabling myth. And although no one has been able to properly document the total amount of supplemental spending on children limited in English, the annual total for California certainly exceeds $400 million and may be as much as $1 billion or more, sums that can buy a tremendous amount of silence or complicity.

Unfortunately for its profiteers, “bilingual education” is completely unworkable as well as unsuccessful. Even after 20 or 30 years of effort, California has had absolutely no luck in finding the enormous supply of properly certified bilingual teachers to match the 140 languages spoken by California schoolchildren. All sides in the debate agree that the old-fashioned “sink or swim” method of learning English is the worst alternative, yet more California schoolchildren today are submerged into this approach than are in properly structured bilingual programs, although courts have ruled the former unconstitutional and the latter legally mandatory. “Bilingual or nothing” in practice often means “nothing.”

These facts may only now be coming to the attention of California’s affluent white elite, but they have long been well-known to the current system’s primary victims, powerless Latino immigrants and their children. Over recent years, there have been a series of spontaneous protests against “bilingual education” by angry parents, most notably the 1996 Latino boycott at Los Angeles’ 9th Street Elementary School, which directly inspired our “English for the Children” initiative campaign.

The initiative, targeted for next June’s ballot, would end bilingual education in California by making it truly voluntary. Parents could still have their children placed or kept in a bilingual program, but only if they took the affirmative step of seeking a waiver. Since public opinion surveys, including a recent Los Angeles Times poll, have consistently shown 80% to 85% dislike for the current program among its supposed beneficiaries, voluntary bilingual programs will become very few and far between. And those programs that do survive our initiative by attracting genuine parental support are probably worth preserving. In a state as large and diverse as California, even the most unlikely program may occasionally succeed due to specific local conditions or unique individuals.

But either way, all of California’s immigrant schoolchildren finally will be granted the right to be taught English, the universal language of advancement and opportunity, supplementing their own family languages. Only by ending our failed system of bilingual education can we foster the true growth of bilingualism and the unity and prosperity of our multiethnic society.

Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley Software Entrepreneur, Is the Chairman of the “English for the Children” Initiative Campaign. in 1994, he Challenged Incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson for the Republican Nomination.

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