‘Bilingual education under fire,” a Sentinel headline read last week.

What else is new?

It has become fashionable to blast immigrants, even those who arrive here legally, work and pay their fair share of taxes. Blasting bilingual education for those immigrants’ children fits in quite nicely with ’90’s xenophobia.

The arguments most used against bilingual education is that it costs too much and that it’s not needed:

Why should taxpayers be paying for these here foreigners’ kids to keep talking their language?

Our great-grandparents learned English by immersing themselves in it, so why shouldn’t today’s kids?

It’s true that most immigrant children at the turn of the century learned English without having their first language – Italian, Polish, German, whatever – used in the classroom.

It’s also true, though, that several states, counties and cities, especially in the 1800s, taught school in the native language of those who lived in their areas. Eventually, the English language won out by the third generation, if not sooner.

Here’s another fact that few critics of bilingual education will acknowledge: Most of those turn-of-the-century kids could make it in their day without a high-school education and without even having to speak English.

Indeed, it was common during that era for youngsters to drop out by the sixth grade. They worked on farms, in sweatshops or in construction – building dams, bridges, roads – to help their families survive.

The owners of the sweatshops or the chiefs of construction sites would have a bilingual worker who could bark out instructions in the native language of the Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans and others who got the job done.

Today, though, no one questions the need for, at a minimum, a high-school education. Nor do we – and this includes immigrants such as myself – challenge that if you don’t speak English you’re not going to get ahead in this country.

That’s why the best bilingual education programs seek to have their students “mainstreamed” into regular classes within one to three years. In the meantime, the students begin by having some of their courses – such as science, history and math – taught in their native language so they can get a better grasp of concepts that even many English-speaking students have difficulty mastering. At the same time, those students are taught English as a separate course.

As those students progress through the program, the kids are taught less in their native language and more and more in English until they are fluent.

For all the commotion over bilingual education programs threatening American culture, the truth is that the aim of most of those programs – certainly any that have been successful – is to help students to master English so they won’t drop out of school. There’s plenty of historical evidence to show that old sink-or-swim “English immersion” programs didn’t work as well as bilingual programs can.

No doubt there have been problems with a small minority of bilingual education programs, especially some that have failed in California, because they were tied to political agendas that had little to do with English instruction.

Nevertheless, bilingual education – especially for older children who need more time to learn a second language – not only is needed but is more than worth the public investment in building America’s future citizens.

Indeed, surveys of children in bilingual education programs are showing that, once they are fluent in English, they prefer speaking their second language over their native tongue. What else is new?

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