A deeper sense of xenophobia has descended on America recently. The sleepy rural town of Pahrump, NV, reflected this animosity when it passed an ordinance that made English the official language and made it illegal to display foreign flags without an accompanying American flag (Curtis, 2006). In an act of civil disobedience, two Pahrump residents placed a Polish flag and an Italian flag (in reference to their own ancestry) on their front porch (Curtis, 2006). Vandals drenched the Italian flag with eggs overnight (the Italian flag looks similar to the Mexican flag).
A majority of the voting citizens of Pahrump would eventually overturn the polarizing ordinance. This incident reflects a salient truth: many monolingual Americans feel uncomfortable with the influx of Spanish-speaking peoples because of the perceived lack of assimilation by Hispanics. This xenophobic atmosphere has trickled onto the realm of education: a movement for the elimination of bilingual education in public schools has gained more attention recently. Proponents argue that using native languages in the classroom impedes national unity (Brisk, 1998).
Others feel that bilingual education impedes learning. This research paper examines a possible cause of the anti-bilingual movement. It also examines some arguments and counter arguments of bilingual education. Although by definition bilingual education may include English and any foreign language, this paper focuses on the Spanish-speaking population because of the perception many have about the Hispanic community: that it resists conforming to American culture. Such sentiments have contributed to the anti-bilingual education movement that has descended in many parts of America.
This is unfortunate because bilingual education programs actually promote assimilation into mainstream American society. Bilingual Education 3 The bilingual education debate, as mentioned in the introductory paragraph, has garnished more dialogue lately because of another hot button issue; immigration. Newscasts often flash images of “illegal aliens” crossing our borders. Many talk shows often feature lively debates concerning effects of the undocumented workforce. The immigration debate finally sparked a massive protest in 20006 with the “Day Without an Immigrant” boycott that would affect American schools and businesses (Lendon, 2006).
The topic of bilingual education has inevitably entered the debate. Editorial writers often slip in their stances on bilingual education when discussing immigration issues. Pugnacious talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh often host acidic debates on bilingualism in the United States. This issue will certainly not evaporate any time soon. What many opponents of bilingual education fail to mention is that there is an elephant in the room: xenophobia. Many monolingual citizens fear that American culture as they know it is morphing into something foreign.
Considering America’s rich, colorful immigrant history, this fear baffles the mind. Why would the descendants of Poles, Germans, Czechs, Italians, and other European immigrants express such concerns? Critics of America’s evolving culture should focus on the similarities between the immigrants of their ancestors and the plight of today’s average immigrant. Many of America’s ancestors landed on our shores at the turn of the 20th century (Calderon, Slavin, 2001). Their European ancestors, like today’s immigrants, had the same dreams that many of today’s immigrants have: to escape the abyss of poverty or war.
Although many immigrants faced linguistic and cultural obstacles, many witnessed their children succeed in school and acquire economic security. According to Calderon and Slaven Bilingual Education 4 (2001), “School is the ladder by which children of immigrants climb out of poverty and into mainstream society” (p. 8). The goal of the immigrants of yesteryear was clearly to assimilate by means of a quality education. If education is a major ingredient for assimilation of immigrants into mainstream society, then society should embrace bilingual education. A starting point is literacy, since reading cuts across all academic subjects.
An effective strategy involves using a child’s native language in literacy instruction. We generally acquire reading skills by reading (Smith, 1994). By providing a child with reading material in his/her primary language, we provide the student with a healthier, stronger academic base from which to build on. Once a child acquires these basic skills such as identifying phonic blends in his/her mother tongue, the student digests the given topic easier. Equipped with reading and content knowledge skills, the transition into literacy in a second language then becomes smoother for the English language learner.
Truly, a child’s native language is the best initial medium of instruction (Brisk,1998). I did not realize how important using a child’s native language was until I experienced an obstacle with a native Spanish speaker several years ago. Using only English, I was trying to teach a student fresh from Mexico the concept of active and linking verbs. I soon realized that she had never learned these basics about her own native language, let alone grammar of the English language. I soon resorted to teaching her grammar in Spanish.
After she mastered the subject, I transitioned what she learned into the initial English lesson that I had tried teaching her earlier. This experience lends credence to the point that scholars make: children still have a lot to learn about their Bilingual Education 5 native tongue upon entering American schools (Brisk, 1998). Despite the fact that research supports using native languages as a tool for literacy, many continue their resistance to bilingual education; they argue for an all-English atmosphere in schools. An indirect but serious consequence of this approach is the
psychological effect it may have on many Latinos. Many agree that language is a key component of every culture (Blanc, 2000). By discouraging Spanish from the classroom, the limited English proficient (LEP) student may feel that his or her native language or culture has less value than the mainstream culture. This may produce a sense of inferiority in the mind of many Hispanics and may cause strife among different ethnicities. Ironically, this moves many Latinos away from the assimilation ideal, which opponents of bilingual education do not want.
In addition to affecting the morale of the LEP community, eliminating bilingual education programs may increase the already sky-high Hispanic high school drop-out rate. Lack of academic success is one reason Hispanic youths quit school (Lockwood, 1996). By removing their limited access to research-based programs such as bilingual education, they may suffer even less academic success. Eventually, this may produce a Hispanic community full of low-skilled, poorly educated people. In other words, it may produce a subclass.
Again, this moves Hispanics away from the assimilation goal cherished by many Americans. Regardless of the benefits of bilingual education, anti-bilingual sentiments continue percolating. Some resort to using other Latinos as a means for obtaining their anti-bilingual agenda. Some cite Richard Rodriguez’s In Hunger of Memory: the Bilingual Education 6 Education of Richard Rodriguez as a case against bilingual education (Krashen, 2007). Rodriguez, a Mexican immigrant, enjoyed great academic success and assimilated into American society despite the lack of bilingual education.
Some average Hispanics parallel Rodriquez’s anti-bilingual education stances. Forty-three-year-old waitress Ana Julia Duncan, daughter of Mexican nationals, received minimal bilingual services in the third grade (personal communication). Despite this fact, academically she performed moderately well (personal communication). Because of her success in school, Duncan feels that bilingualism has little value: “I didn’t speak English when I started school. I did OK. Why can’t anybody else do OK? ” Unfortunately, her way of thinking strikes a familiar chord with other Latinos in her same situation.
The Rodriquez and Duncan stories seem to act as support for the elimination of bilingual education. However, neither person represent the average, modern English language learner. In Rodriquez’s case, he grew up in a predominately white neighborhood (Kreshen, 2007). As a result, he was exposed to the English language a lot more than the average Spanish speaker. Since a child’s socio-cultural environment plays a major role in his or her intellectual development (Gregory, 2004), Rodriguez’s success should not surprise many. His peers, in essence, acted as quasi-tutors.
Duncan’s situation parallels Rodriguez’s upbringing: she too grew up in a mainly white neighborhood (personal communication). Therefore she too received informal training or input from her peers. A majority of Hispanic LEP students, by contrast, live in predominately Spanish-speaking neighborhoods and lack the advantages Rodriguez and Duncan had as children (Kreshen, 2007). Bilingual Education 7 Despite the flaws in using Rodriguez and Duncan as microcosms in the bilingual education debate, some nevertheless insist in a total immersion approach in our schools.
Although total immersion has no credible supporting evidence (Crawford, 2007), from a personal point of view, it does have a tinge of value. I had virtually no English-speaking skills as a very young child. My parents were Mexican nationals; my father worked at the post office while my mother stayed at home with the children. Thus, I had virtually no exposure to English. Upon entering my predominantly white kindergarten class in 1970, I realized that I was basically on my own since there were no other Latino children in that particular class.
However, this sink or swim situation had a benefit. Within a year, I spoke conversational English. By the first grade, I became fairly fluent in English and would earn average grades. In my opinion, total immersion did play a role in my acquiring salient English skills. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the second grade, I felt as if I lost a part of my identity: I lost a good deal of my native language. I forgot some major Spanish vocabulary words, I started having trouble pronouncing many polysyllabic words, and I had developed a slight gringo accent.
Mexican children noticed this and would often make fun of my awkward Spanish. To make things worse, my English skills still needed improvement. The presence of bilingual education may have prevented some of my linguistic obstacles by helping me maintain a healthy language base in both English and Spanish. Luckily, some of my teachers noticed my problem and placed me in a bilingual program along with three other students. One was in the same situation as myself; the Bilingual Education 8
other two were predominately proficient in Spanish who lacked major English skills. The bilingual teacher helped us maintain our strengths and helped correct our weaknesses by using our native language as a medium for instruction. By the end of the school year, I felt more confident. This research paper starts out with an anecdote that depicts a rural Nevada town struggling with xenophobia; it had voted in an English-only ordinance. Then, a connection between xenophobia in America and the anti-bilingual education movement is unveiled.
Despite the fact that some school districts have pupils from as many as 130 different countries (Crawford, 2004), this paper focuses on the Spanish speaking English language learner because of a major criticism the Hispanic community endures; that it resists assimilation into the mainstream American culture. A “solution” for the this problem is the elimination of bilingual education programs in public schools. Proponents claim this would strengthen national unity. However, as this research paper demonstrates, purging such programs would actually gear the Hispanic English language learner away from assimilation, not towards it.
If many opponents of bilingualism have their way, American schools will eventually have a monolithic, cookie-cutter approach to teaching its student population. In the United States, a country made from a rich tapestry of immigrants, this scenario would be very un-American. Bilingual Education 9 References Blanc, M. H. A. , & Hamers, J. (2000). Bilinguality and Bilingualism. England : Cambridge University Press. Summary: This book is a very elevated, academic piece of work. It provides the reader with a guideline to language behavior, tools to measure levels of bilingualism, and addresses bilingual development.
Other areas the book concentrates on include the cognitive development of the bilingual mind, and the cognitive consequences of the bilingual behavior. Brisk, M. E. (1998) Bilingual Education: From Compensatory to Quality Education. Mahway, New Jersey: Cambridge University Press. Summary: This book examines the traditional debates about bilingual education. It also examines influences, both internal and external, on the bilingual student’s education. The author presents strategies for implementing quality bilingual services. Calderon, M. , & Slavin, R. (2001).
Effective Programs for Latino Students. Mahway, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Summary: This book highlights programs that have worked well for the Hispanic population. It also addresses the unacceptable high drop-out rate of Latino high school students. The book goes a step further by unveiling the needs of higher-education for Hispanics, an area that has received relatively little attention. The authors also explain why many Latinos are at risk in America. Curtis, Lynette. (2006, Nov. 15). Pahrump Targets Illegal Immigrants. The Las Vegas Review Journal.
Curtis, Lynette. (2006, Nov. 23). Backlash: Pahrump flag ban won’t fly. The Las Vegas Review Journal. Lockwood, A. T. Caring, Community, and Personalization: Strategies to Combat the Hispanic Dropout Problem. (1996). “Advances in Hispanic Education, 1. ” Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education. Summary: This book focuses on the dangerously real issue of the Latino dropout issue. T Gregory, E. , Long, S. , & Volk. (2004). Many Pathways to Literacy: Young Children Learning with Siblings, Grandparents, Peers, and Communities. New York: Routledge Falmer.
Summary: This book looks at literacy, including bilingual literacy, using a sociocultural approach. It taps into the family structure in various ethnic groups. The book addresses bilingual education in the home and highlights the benefits of this strategy. The authors unveil the importance of using cultural norms as a means to teach literacy (such as story-telling). Another aspect of this piece is its assessment of children’s everyday life experience and how that impacts learning. On a personal note, this book didn’t really catch my eye at first because it didn’t focus on Hispanics specifically.
I am happy that I finally opened it up because I was able to see some parallels between the Hispanic experiences and other ethnic groups. Krashen, Stephen. ( 1997). Why Bilingual Education? Eric Digest. Retrieved April 4, 2006 from http://www. ericdigests. org/1997-3/bilingual. html. Lendon, Brad. (2006, May 1). US prepares for ‘A Day Without an Immigrant. ’ Retrieved on April 4, 2007, from http://www. cnn. com/2006/US/04/28/boycott/ Smith, F. (1994). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read (5th ed. ). Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum. .
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