Immersion Teaching Means Learning in Any Language

For years liberal educators looked to bilingual education as the correct method of English instruction. But a well-known language activist concludes that mainstreaming should be the watchword.

In 1990 Rosalie Pedalino Porter published Forked Tongue, a strongly argued, biting attack on bilingual education that was made all the more powerful because what it had to say came directly from the belly of the beast.

Porter had been active in bilingual-education programs since the early seventies. But by the time she came to write Forked Tongue, she tells Insight, she had “concluded that bilingual-education programs [which teach students entirely in their native language from five to seven years to provide transition to English] do not work. They do not result, as they promise to do, in better learning of English or other subjects.”

It’s an opinion she still holds – more firmly than ever. This spring, a second edition of Porter’s now-classic Forked Tongue is being published with a long epilogue that brings her readers up to date on what has happened in bilingual education since the book made its first appearance.

She has good news: “There are school districts across the country switching from native-language programs to programs in which English is the primary language, often called immersion programs, because the results of bilingual education have been so bad.”

But Porter also has not-so-good news: “The bilingual-education bureaucracy [the network of teachers, administrators and educators who argue for bilingual education] is still very strong.”

In 1990, Porter wondered why two decades of failure didn’t convince bilingual-education supporters of the futility of their efforts. Now, armed with new information from studies performed since that time, she’s even more at a loss to explain its continued appeal. “Both federal and state agencies continue to give preference to native-language programs over English as a second language [or ESL, programs that teach non-English speakers primarily in English] by a wide margin,” she notes. This is true even though “there is no conclusive research that demonstrates the education superiority of bilingual education over ESL” programs, which usually cover a period of only three years.

Indeed, the opposite is true, as Porter maintains in the new edition of Forked Tongue. She cites the example of a study conducted two years ago which showed that Korean, Russian and Chinese students in New York City’s public schools have the advantage of mainstreaming into regular English-taught classes far more quickly than do Spanish-speaking or Haitian/Creole-speaking students. The reason for this advantage: Hispanic and Haitian students are taught in bilingual-education programs, while the Korean-, Russian- and Chinese-speaking students receive their English-language training in ESL programs.

But Porter’s favorite example is the “El Paso Bilingual Immersion Project” of the early nineties. In this study, she points out, two groups of students from the same backgrounds (Hispanic, working class) were placed in two different programs – one of them bilingual education and the other an immersion program in which classes were taught in English with only a smattering of Spanish.

In the new edition of her book she writes: The “results for grades four and five do show superior performance in all academic areas for students in the immersion program over students in the transitional bilingual program.”

She notes too that the El Paso study provided no evidence from “parents, students or teachers” that immersion programs undermine student self-esteem or cause undue stress among students, two of the claims made by supporters of bilingual education who say requiring young students to learn English during a three-year rather than seven-year period produces anxiety and feelings of inferiority.

Porter is cheered by groups of Hispanic parents who have organized in New York City and Los Angeles, demanding that their offspring be taught English as quickly as possible and that they not be placed in classes in which subjects are taught in Spanish. Some of the saddest elements in Porter’s book are the statements from parents who say they beg to have their children removed from bilingual classes, only to be told by school administrators that the “experts know best.”

The Bushwick Parents Organization, which represents 150 families in Brooklyn, has sued the State Commissioner of Education, charging that “tens of thousands of immigrant children in New York City have been permitted to languish for up to six years in bilingual classes, learning neither English nor other subjects particularly well.”

Supporters of bilingual education now accuse opponents such as Porter of being “nativists, enemies of immigration, enemies of learning foreign languages,” she says. Porter responds by saying, “I am myself an immigrant [from Italy]. I speak four languages fluently. I am no enemy of immigration. And I see no connection at all between asking that students be taught English in a way that has proved successful and saying we shouldn’t have immigrant students.”

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