The Coastal Post - June, 1998

Bilingual Education: Myths and Realities

By Domenico Maceri

Proposition 227, the English-only initiative that would eliminate bilingual education from California schools, is favored by the majority of the state's voters, according to recent polls. Yet, many people know little about the subject. Their preference is based on emotion and myths they might have about bilingualism, languages, and immigration.

Myth #1: Bilingual education aims to make all children bilingual. Reality: Bilingual education merely tries to teach children the school subjects in the students' native language while they are learning English. After several years, students will transition into English-only classes. If instruction is in English from the very beginning, immigrant children will lose several years because initially they will be lost. They'll fall behind and may never recover the lost ground.

Myth #2: Children learn languages easily and effortlessly. The younger the child, the easier it is to learn English. Reality: Children learn languages slowly. The speed and ease with which children acquire languages is a myth.

Unlike adults who only have to learn the "language," that is to say the words, children need to learn the words and what they represent. They don't just need to learn the words for simple arithmetic; they also need to learn the concepts.

Adults just have to learn the words because they already know the concepts in their native language. For instance, they just need to learn the "words" in order to do simple arithmetic in a new language.

The other major component of language-grammar- also takes children a long time. Adults can learn it faster because the rules can be explained to them logically. Adults can learn easily that adding "ed" to a verb makes it past tense.

Children, on the other hand, will learn those rules by hearing lots of examples and somehow manage to "create" the rules in their mind. The inductive method used by children takes time. Bilingual education gives children the necessary time to learn English and also provides an opportunity to learn the necessary school subjects.

Myth #3: Bilingual education does not work. Reality: Research done by George Mason University and the National Research Council indicates that it works very well. A study by the Los Angeles Unified School District demonstrated that students in bilingual education programs did better in reading and writing than those who were taught in English from the beginning. Certainly the old "sink or swim" approach did not work. In the past, immigrant children were often classified as not intelligent because they could not compete with native born students. In 1921 fifty percent of the special education students in New York City were Italian immigrants. Why such a high rate? Their lack of English skills.

Myth #4: New immigrants don't want to learn English. Reality: Immigrants recognize very well the importance of the English language. They understand that the lack of English skills translates itself into menial work and a life outside of mainstream. No English means having to find an interpreter at a doctor's office. It means the inability to ask for a painkiller in a hospital after an operation. All those immigrants who flock to the English as a Second Language classes after working an entire day certainly are doing it because they want to learn English.

Myth #5: Bilingual education should solve all the educational problems of immigrant children. If not, it should be dropped. Reality: Bilingual education is no panacea because its recipients are disadvantaged students. Bilingual education cannot change the socio-economic and educational status of immigrant children and their parents. Bilingual education cannot eliminate the poverty inherent in immigrant children's lives. It cannot turn their parents into well-educated people who can provide all the support their kids need.

Bilingual education is not perfect, but then what is? Phonics? Whole language? Traditional math? New math? Good teachers know that they need a variety of tools to meet the diverse needs of their students. Bilingual education is one of those tools.

Bilingual education is not a magic bullet. Yet it gives immigrant children a chance to succeed. And children, regardless of which side of the river they were born, deserve every chance we can give them.

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