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Lessons—Bilingual Ed: Debunking Double Talk

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON NOVEMBER 8, 2000]

Bilingual Ed: Debunking Double Talk

By Richard Rothstein

To follow conversation in a foreign language, it helps to know something about what is being discussed. Even if you barely know the language, you can then infer meaning from fragments you comprehend, guessing at unknown words from context.

That is the idea behind bilingual education: immigrant pupils can absorb English more easily when they have learned, in their own language, background information for a lesson. Consider a child ready to study, in English, the Hudson River’s role in New York history. He will have difficulty if, unlike other children, he did not learn the year before about rivers and commerce in a language he understood.

Not all English learners need this context. For some, immersion in simplified English, with some translation, might be better. But rational consideration of alternatives is too often replaced by political posturing.

Bilingual education should be promoted, because most often it teaches English more effectively by challenging pupils in a language they understand while they learn English. Then their study of English can benefit from contextual clues, gained from lessons in their native tongue, that explain words or phrases that are otherwise hard to comprehend.

If, after all, the aim is to teach pupils to think in English, it makes no sense to teach English but not thinking. Good bilingual programs do not delay the learning of English but begin it right away, while keeping children from falling behind in social studies, literature, math or science. In math, some English can be used early. In social studies, context may be too complex for children with limited English to catch on, so English should be more gradual.

Children especially from semi-literate families do not always bring from home sufficient background in a native language. When they listen to classroom discussions in English, they may lack context to guess at unfamiliar words.

Of course, children from literate homes who are taken abroad can learn a new language by being immersed in it at school. And immigrant pupils here whose families are more literate in their own language (like many Jews early in the 20th century, or Asians today) can learn English quickly without bilingual help. But they are unlike children from less literate homes who immigrate without the background in any language that teachers expect of children their age.

Bilingual education’s value for such immigrants, of course, is not a reason to keep the program when it is poorly run, with children not moved to English as soon as they are ready. Multiculturalism and dual- language fluency are fine goals for all children but should always be second in importance to academic proficiency in English. Bilingual education is sometimes abused by proponents for whom preserving cultural heritage, not teaching English, is the top priority. Well-run immersion classes are superior to that.

Immersion programs are also needed because there are too few qualified bilingual teachers, especially with immigrants now dispersed nationwide in service and manufacturing jobs. Even in big cities like New York, there are bilingual teacher shortages, and so immersion may sometimes be more practical.

But immersion in English is also subject to abuse. Too often schools, in the guise of teaching English, fail to provide simplified language and frequent translation – a “sink or swim” disaster. It was lawsuits over such practices that spurred bilingual education’s growth.

Thus, both bilingual and immersion methods need to be monitored carefully.

There are well-run bilingual classes in many states, and despite attacks by some politicians, evidence suggests that they are as successful in teaching English to low-income Hispanic immigrants as other approaches, if not more so.

Ron Unz, a wealthy California Republican who is a leading opponent of bilingual education, recently claimed that scores had risen in a California district that had dropped it. But Mr. Unz did not focus on districts where scores had increased while bilingual classes continued.

Arizona schools report test scores by language instruction method. Those data show that schools enrolling large numbers of Hispanic children and offering bilingual education score higher, on English-language tests, than schools where children do not learn content in Spanish. But the data were ignored by Arizona voters, who, public opinion polls taken earlier found, favored by a wide margin an initiative on the ballot yesterday to ban bilingual education, a campaign Mr. Unz financed.

Immigrants must learn English well. Where there are bilingual teachers who appreciate the link between thinking and speaking, bilingual programs should be an option. Elsewhere, structured English immersion is preferable. Decisions about which method to use in particular cases should be made by educators studying facts, not by politicians or voters on ideological crusades.

Correction: November 10, 2000, Friday 
     
Because of an editing error, the Lessons column on Wednesday, about bilingual education, misstated the writer’s view of when that system is most useful in the teaching of English. The column was intended to say that bilingual teaching of English is warranted when it intellectually challenges pupils in a language they understand. He did not say it should be promoted because most often it teaches English more effectively.

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