Language Issue is Not Political

Studies, Experience Show Bilingual Education Works

???I was not an advocate of bilingual education when I began my teaching career as an English as a second language teacher more than 20 years ago. It seemed perfectly logical to me that if the goal was for students to learn English, the more English they received, the better. After all, when my son wanted to learn to play tennis, I enrolled him in tennis classes, not golf.

Over time, however, through personal experience, I came to believe that what appeared to be logical on the surface was not necessarily true.

The students that I taught in 30- to 40-minute English-as-a-second-language pullout classes came from two different programs within the school. Some were in bilingual classrooms receiving part of their academic instruction in their native language and part in English, and some were in all English programs.

Students from both programs learned to communicate orally in English in two or three years. After that length of time, however, I began to notice distinct differences between the two groups. Students in the bilingual program seemed better able to keep up academically as they progressed through the grades, while those in English-only classrooms fell further and further behind.

This was puzzling to me until I realized that while their peers were learning math, science and social studies, the students in English-only classes were for the most part only learning English. They missed large portions of their academics either because they didn’t understand the content or because the content was watered down. The resulting gaps in their academic education made it almost impossible for them to ever catch up.

Students in good bilingual classrooms, however, were learning the same content that other students in their grade level were learning – only they were learning it in two languages. When they acquired enough academic English, they were usually able to make a smooth transition, continuing their academic education on grade level in English.

Even more surprising, most of the students in the bilingual program seemed to have a better command of English than those who had received only English instruction throughout their educational lives.

Long-term studies on bilingual education have since validated my initial experiences working with bilingual children. I was very fortunate to start out my career seeing what was possible for students enrolled in a good bilingual program to achieve. I am aware, however, that not all bilingual programs are as effective.

Bilingual educators need to look at what works and what doesn’t, and act accordingly. One of the programs that is working and has proven extremely successful is the dual language bilingual approach, which is designed as an enrichment program for English speaking students and second language students.

After learning together in two languages for at least six years, almost all students become bilingual and “bi-literate,” and score well above the national average on standardized tests in English. Instead of getting rid of bilingual students’ first language – only to ask them to learn it again as a foreign language in high school – this program utilizes the strengths of bilingual children to prepare all students to compete in a global economy that increasingly calls for multilingual and multicultural expertise.

I truly believe that people who keep an open mind, who read the research for themselves and who take the time to visit successful bilingual programs will at least acknowledge that parents who wish to have their children in a bilingual program should be allowed to do so.

No one is forcing bilingual education on anyone. In Arizona, by law, bilingual education is and always has been a choice. In a state that actively promotes parental choice through charter schools, it seems only fair that we offer the same privilege of parental choice to taxpayers who want their children to receive bilingual education.

We have a wonderful national resource in our bilingual children. We cannot allow decisions to be made about their lives by uninformed people who insist on making this educational issue into a political one.

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