Though once an advocate of bilingual education, I’m now opposed, broadly speaking. American society has a right, an obligation, to socialize immigrants and teach them English. I didn’t speak English when I entered PS 39 in the South Bronx in 1955 – only Spanish. By the time I got a master’s degree in English education, I knew quite a few words in my second language – without bilingual education.
I worked for Aspira Inc., a Puerto Rican self-help group, in the early 1970s. Aspira and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund brought suit against the educational system and won. The result of this decision was one of the biggest factors in the institutionalization of bilingual education in American schools.
My own role in the law suit was modest. But I was involved enough to know the concerns weren’t purely educational, but also cultural and political. Aspira had at the time, and still does, a sincere interest in promoting education among Hispanics. But maintenance of Puerto Rican cultural identity and the Spanish language were desired ends, as were more teaching and administrative jobs for Spanish-speaking educators, as well as greater clout in the educational establishment.
I now believe there is no place for bilingual education in the lower grades. Children 14 or younger have great linguistic dexterity and can quickly learn a new language. We harm them if we don’t immerse them in English from the start. Teaching in another language creates not only educational problems, but ultimately marginalizes them socially and economically as well. Such children need brief transitional programs of less than a year – not continuous instruction in their native language.
The real problem is not bilingual education in the lower grades, but in the higher grades. By the age of 14 or so, the native language sets in and it’s harder to learn a new language. This means that immigrant students in the high school level for the most part need bilingual programs – often for much more than a year. In years past, we could give them a smattering of English and send them to factories and docks to work. But the manual and manufacturing jobs are gone. Today they need more to compete in a technologically complex service economy. They need time in a bilingual setting to learn math, science and civics in their native language while they learn English.
The writer is an English and Spanish teacher at the Bronx High School of Science.<