California is taking a new look at merits of bilingual education

California, where voter initiatives often become leading indicators of nationwide 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So intense are feelings that recently the California Board of Education rescinded its policy requiring that all students with limited English skills be taught in their native language.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.

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.

In California, at least 55 languages are spoken by the 1.4 million children who are not proficient in English. It is difficult to hire enough competent bilingual teachers and sometimes schools have to settle for teachers with limited English skills, an inadequacy they pass on to their students.

Many immigrant youngsters come from countries where they had inadequate schooling. 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. This is short-sighted and politically dangerous. 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.

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 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.

California’s Proposition 227 would provide a year of schooling that emphasizes English, with courses taught in English, for children who are not proficient in the language. Done with understanding and skill, it should work far better than what California is doing now.

Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill., 60611. Distributed by KRT News Service.

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