For Bilingual Ed, it's Physiological: Mend it, don't end it

Jan. 11, 1998 — A recent story in the Los Angeles Daily News makes it clear that bilingual education in California needs to be fixed. “Educators” in some of the state’s schools, the story found, allow bilingual education students to spend “their afternoons on the playground — instead of in the classroom learning English.”

There is of course a pedagogical theory behind this scandal. The idea is for children classified as limited-English-proficient to spend time with their English-speaking peers in a low-anxiety, non-academic setting. This way, supposedly, they will pick up English. The reality, though, is that kids being kids, they are spending their extended recess playing “aimlessly,” as the story put it, with little mixing between English and Spanish-speakers. No surprise there — the English-speaking kids are back in the classrooms learning.

If kids want to play, they can do so after school. In school, they are supposed to be learning. Teachers who let immigrant kids hang around in a playground all afternoon are abdicating their responsibility as educators. What these schools are doing is no education at all, bilingual or otherwise.

But it certainly gives ammunition to the campaign headed by Silicone Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz for a question on the June ballot in California to end bilingual education altogether. The bilingual education establishment just keeps making it easier and easier for him. This new betrayal of immigrant children comes just two months after the California Educational Research Cooperative at the University of California, Riverside, issued a report concluding that kids need 10 years to achieve native fluency in writing, reading and speaking English.

If these people were to have their way, an immigrant child who enters American schools in the second grade would not be deemed ready to sit in a mainstream classroom until senior year in high school, an utter absurdity.

With bilingual education having friends like the theorists at UC Riverside and the playground teachers, its enemies don’t need to do much more than administer the coup de grace. No wonder Unz is so confident of success. “After 30 years of consistent failure, bilingual education will largely vanish from California five months from today,” he says in a press release.

Unz seems genuinely concerned with the educational fate of immigrant kids. His campaign has worked hard not to be seen as what Unz calls “the third in a disastrous series of ethnically-divisive political ‘wedge’ initiatives,” namely the propositions to end affirmative action and to kick the children of illegal immigrants out of schools. He has been fairly successful, as polls show Hispanic parents overwhelmingly favoring Unz’ initiative.

But his good intentions matter little. A sudden, abrupt ending to bilingual education would be as damaging to kids as the lame programs that pass for bilingual education today.

It is beyond doubt that young children can learn English very fast, soaking up the new language like a sponge. A very short transitional period may be all that is necessary for them. But studies have shown that around the time of puberty a “sheath” forms around the brain that prevents a 14-year-old to pick up a new language with the natural ease of a nine-year-old.

It comes down to human physiology: High schoolers need bilingual education. In a well-run program, these teens would spend part of the day learning math, history and other subjects in their native language and part of the day in intensive (no playgrounds here) English instruction until they are ready to move on to full-time, mainstream instruction in English with everybody else. The transition does not need to take more than a year or two, depending on the individual.

Yet if Unz wins, even this transitional period would not exist. Teenagers who do not speak English would be forced to spend their time in classrooms where they do not understand the teacher. And that’s no better than spending it in the playground.

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