A little girl points to a picture in her textbook. “Is this a fuego?” she asks. The teacher replies, ” Si, por favor hable en Espanol.” In schools all across America, Hispanic children eager and ready to learn English are being taught their lessons in Spanish instead. Their story — and its disturbing consequences for the children and society — is told by Rosalie Pedaline Porter in “Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education” (Basic Books, 288 pages, $22.95).
Ms. Porter has spent nearly 20 years in the field of bilingual education, first as a teacher, then as the administrator of a successful program for non-English-speaking children in Newton, Mass., and finally as an outspoken critic of bilingual education. Her realization that bilingual education is an ineffective method to teach English came slowly and at considerable risk to her career. An early bilingual education enthusiast, Ms. Porter hoped to help a new generation of non-English-speaking youngsters avoid what she’d gone through as a frightened, six-year-old Italian immigrant, forced to learn English unassisted. But Ms. Porter’s enthusiasm waned as she tried to put into practice the theories she’d learned for her undergraduate degree in bilingual education.
Her first assignment was teaching kindergarten and elementary school in Springfield, Mass. Most of her day was spent teaching the children in Spanish. She recalls dutifully asking a young boy to identify a green box: “Juan, que color es este?” she asked, and he replied, “Green.” The boy’s response wasn’t surprising, because most of the students were Puerto Ricans born in Massachusetts, not recent immigrants. They came from homes in which Spanish and English were spoken. Nonetheless, Ms. Porter toed the line. “Verde,” she corrected the boy, and he repeated, “Green.” Says Ms. Porter: “I came to feel that I was going about things the wrong way around, as if I were deliberately holding back the learning of English.”
Eventually, she began introducing more English instruction into the school day — and the children thrived. Ms. Porter developed her methods further when she became an administrator in the Newton school system, which provided intensive English-language instruction for non-English-speaking children. There, her efforts to teach students English provoked the enmity of the bilingual-education bureaucracy. She became the target of a vindictive campaign to impugn her personal integrity and discredit the Newton program. It was only over strenuous objections from the state education department’s bilingual bureaucracy that Ms. Porter’s critique of bilingual education ultimately earned her a doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
According to bilingual advocates, non-English-speaking children must develop a firm foundation in their native language before they can learn academic subjects in a new language. Mexican-American children in California, for example, spend as little as 20 minutes a day being instructed in English while they learn most of their lessons in Spanish.
The problem with bilingual education theory, according to Ms. Porter and a growing list of critics, is that it ignores the most important principle of education: The more time a child spends on a given task, the more likely he or she is to remember the lesson. Hispanic children who spend hours a day listening to Spanish may develop better skills in that language, but they’re not likely to learn English as well as students who are given intensive help learning the new language. Because virtually all these students will spend their lives in the U.S., bilingual education may ultimately deprive them of the ability to earn a decent living or move into the social mainstream.
So why do ethnic leaders promote bilingual education? Ms. Porter thinks they’re motivated by their own desire to preserve Hispanic culture and language in the face of the inevitable pressure to assimilate. As she reminds readers, such attempts are usually futile: Witness the fate of Gaelic in Ireland, where the government has spent years trying to save the country’s ancient language by mandating its teaching in the public schools, to no avail. Ms. Porter also believes that bilingual bureaucrats want to protect their own jobs and exercise control over the Hispanic community.
Despite the program’s shortcomings, mainstream policy-makers continue to support bilingual education. Granted, the federal government recently increased its funding for programs that emphasize more English instruction. But most programs are supported by state and local funds, and at those levels, the trend is to expand native-language programs. A proposed New York state plan, already given preliminary approval, will extend native-language instruction from elementary through high school and will allow some Hispanic youngsters to take graduation exams in Spanish.
In reacting to this trend, Ms. Porter is at her best when speaking from personal experience. She is weakest when she veers off onto discussions of education research, much of it from other countries. And she spends too much time trying to refute the assertions of bilingual-education theorists, when her most eloquent case rests in her descriptions of what goes on in bilingual classrooms. By sharing her own experiences, Ms. Porter may succeed in exposing the inanity of current bilingual education policy.
Ms. Chavez, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, was director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan administration.