The presence of bilingual students in U. S. schools is significant and the result of internal and external historical factors. Educators and policymakers must consider their needs and potential contribution to our education system. The multiplicity of languages and the complex nature of bilinguals renders a complicated but exciting educational field for research, practice, and educational innovation. Unfortunately, languages become entangled in political battles, dragging the education and the future of innocent children into such conflicts.
Indigenous inhabitants, colonizers, and immigrants to the United States have and continue to represent a variety of language backgrounds. Like it or not, the United States is highly multilingual. Fashions in using language in education and attitudes toward bilingualism have undergone many changes since the United States became independent. During the initial colonization of the United States, European settlers used the languages of their countries of origin. The Continental Congress considered French and German important for political purposes.
It recognized the need to disseminate information among disparate populations to broaden the cause of independence (Heath, 1976). The settlers established schools that educated their children in their own languages, especially French, German, Spanish, and Swedish, while teaching English as a second language. Schools that used English as the medium of instruction taught one of the other European languages as a second language ( Keller & Van Hooft, 1982). The presence of many languages in U. S.
schools was an accepted reality until the 1870s. “Newspapers, schools, and societies provided instructional support for diverse languages” (Heath, 1981, p. 7). There was, however, concern for seeking a common language, especially to conduct government affairs (Heath, 1981). The original colonies and territories incorporated later into the Union comprised local governments that used different languages, such as German in Pennsylvania, French in Louisiana, and Spanish in New Mexico and California.
English, nevertheless, always played an important role in the public life of the colonies because from the beginning England colonized the United States. The form of government embraced after the American Revolution reflected English values (Conklin & Lourie, 1983). Economic and historic factors helped solidify the position of English as the language of government. During the first half of the 20th century, English was imposed as the language of instruction in most states. As many as 34 states enacted laws mandating English as the language of instruction.
Other languages were forbidden and teachers could be fined or jailed if found using them: “No polyglot empire of the old world has dared be as ruthless in imposing a single language upon its whole population as was the liberal republic ‘dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal'” ( Johnson, 1949, pp. 118-119). Political, social, and economic rationales for denigrating all languages other than English advanced linguistic and cognitive theories that attacked bilingualism. Public schools quickly adopted a “sink or swim” attitude during the first half of the 20th century.
Special programs such as English as a Second Language (ESL) served only adults. The assumption was that children learn languages easily and nothing special needed to be done. Nevertheless, despite the lack of public support for bilingual education, there were bilingual programs–mostly dual language programs–in private and parochial schools. These schools extended the required curriculum to include instruction in the cultural, linguistic, and religious heritages of the particular ethnic group. A great number of them were bilingual (Fishman & Markman, 1979).
National interest in bilingual education spread when Title VII, the Bilingual Education Act (an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) was enacted in 1968. This federal legislation provided funds to create bilingual programs in poor school districts (Lyons, 1990). The impact of the federal law, both good and bad, was widely felt. A number of states reversed the laws that permitted English as the only language of instruction by passing bilingual education legislation. Massachusetts was the first state to enact such a law with its Transitional Bilingual Education Act (1971).
More than 20 other states followed Massachusetts’ example by creating transitional bilingual education programs (August & Garcia, 1988). Evidently, during the past two centuries, use of languages in education has been increasingly politicized. History has repeated itself but in modified ways. The acceptance of languages in education observed in the early part of the 19th century was apparent again in the 1970s but languages other than English appeared in schools with a much lower status with respect to English than they had a century earlier.
The imposition of English only at the turn of the century reappeared in the 1980s, although this time some minority students were served by special English language programs rather than leaving all to sink or swim. Efforts to make English speakers fluent in other languages have also seen ups and downs. Suspicion toward foreigners in the early part of the century discouraged second language learning. Interest in foreign language learning following World War II wavered in the 1970s.
The pendulum is swinging again in favor of bilingualism for English speakers. Foreign language programs are starting earlier in elementary schools and bilingual education programs that promote bilingualism are becoming increasingly popular (Met & Galloway, 1992). However, most successful bilingual programs have been created not by legislative mandates but by concerned educators and communities working together. Good education for bilingual students should not be the outcome of compliance with legislation.
Schools must be willing to create good programs suitable for all students, including bilinguals. To overcome resistance to implementing bilingual education, many communities resort to politics or lawsuits to force school districts to provide bilingual education. However, political solutions create their own problems, paradoxically compromise and rigidity. For example, laws and regulations that impose a 3-year maximum for students attending bilingual education programs arose as a compromise between the forces for and against bilingual education.
Research shows time and again that students profit from long-term bilingual instruction, even though some students who stay shorter periods eventually succeed in mainstream education (Kleinfeld, 1979). Consequently, it is clear that historically Americans have not showed great tolerance to linguistic diversity. There have been repeated efforts to make English an official language in the country by restricting bilingualism, as well as attempts to enhance more ESL programs on the other side. There is an ongoing disagreement regarding whether or not ESL program meets its initial objective, the ways it affects American society, and its necessity.
The opponents of bilingual teaching argue it is expensive for the country, keeps immigrants socially isolated, slows down the assimilation process, creates a retreat of an official language and dissolves the unity of America. Generally, a lot of people form negative assumptions about bilingual programs based on their ideological beliefs, political views, personal observations, negative experience or simply generalizations and stereotyping based on limited knowledge about ESL classes (Rojas, 2003). These judgments usually lack evidence and logical reasoning, and thus cannot objectively analyze the program’s weaknesses or disadvantages.
As Maria Brisk observes, “Much of the debate on bilingual education is politically motivated, more suitable for talk shows than for improving schools” (Rojas, 2003). And indeed, ESL programs are viewed more as a tool to solve multiple social problems (which, certainly, are also important)–minority groups’ rights, language diversity, melting pot, the unity of the country, a threat to the existence of dominant culture, and so on–instead of focusing on the quality of education our school-age population is receiving and the environment they are placed in.
Policymakers should definitely pay more attention to the program’s educational effectiveness and dramatic improvement in students’ academic progress when deciding whether public schools need ESL classes. Because public schools have quite a significant influence on children’s learning and personal development, we are responsible of making it a positive schooling experience for all students despite their ethnic background or native language.
Bilingual education helps students to learn English faster, provides a friendly learning environment, improves academic progress, encourages kids to become proficient in two languages, teaches cultural awareness, and preserves minorities’ linguistic human rights. It has been proven that students who are enrolled in bilingual classes have better scores on standardized tests, such as the ACT’s and SAT’s, than those who are not enrolled in bilingual classes. Bilingual education is beneficial for our country and enables students to learn English as well as keeping their native tongue for future success in our global economy.
Bilingual education works in our society and should stay intact within the schools and should be funded to enable students who wish to take these classes should be able to. However, it is not the question of whether bilingual programs work (obviously they do), but more the question of how our society addresses cultural and linguistic diversity. Recent studies have proven that bilingual teaching dramatically increases students’ educational progress both in English communicational skills and other content in curriculum.
Students who attend a regular English class right away usually fall behind in subjects taught in English and experience negative consequences in psychological development. ESL system doesn’t disregard the need for acquisition of English; indeed, it one of the most important outcomes of effective bilingual education programs (Zehr, 2004). Looking at the money spent on bilingual education program (when funds are being cut off from other public services across the country) may lead to consideration of abolishing bilingual system and focusing on the projects that affect all students in education system instead.
The United States spends approximately $12 billion on bilingual education each year (Wood, 1997) and over $100 million was spent to study the effectiveness of ESL programs (Mujica, 2003). Because American taxpayers don’t benefit from bilingual instruction directly, many communities and states are unwilling to pay that expense and are quick to cut back regardless its potential positive results. Nevertheless, even though we give up other things that could be otherwise purchased, bilingual programs in public schools is a critical factor in foreign students’ learning process.
Besides the fact that bilingual teaching dramatically increases academic performance, it also encourages more parents to send their children to school and that, in turn, motivates more students to become educated. In other words, the money spent on ESL programs should not be associated with an opportunity cost of ignoring other important problems. Instead, it is a valuable investment in students’ success at school as well as assimilation into American society. The issue of bilingual education in relationship to our global economy enables students enrolled in these classes to have a better future than those students who only speak English.
Jeff MacSwan, supporter of bilingual education and assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Arizona State University, is quoted about bilingual education in our global economy when he says, “Multilingualism is an asset, and Arizona must embrace it” (MacSwan, 1998). Arizona Senator John McCain also believes that bilingual education is an asset to children. He states that, “Arizona should strengthen them (bilingual classes) and make similar resources available to all children” (MacSwan).
In fact, McCain has introduced a program that enables students to be in programs like these. McCain’s program is called “English-Plus” (MaSwan) which acknowledges the great importance of bilingualism in our modern global economy. McCain is quoted concerning bilingual education when he says, “People should not have to abandon the language of their birth to learn the language of their future…The ability to speak languages in addition to English is a tremendous resource to our community” (MacSwan).
In addition, the benefits of bilingual education in our global economy can be seen when US Secretary Richard Riley said, “When they enter the work force in several years we will regret the inability of our children to speak two languages. Our global economy demands it; our children deserve it” (Pratt, 2000). Undoubtedly, in addition to educational advantage, adult bilinguals with a complete grasp of two or more languages, can be more successful economically and benefit more to their communities than their single-language peers.
Our public services employ staff as translators in order to keep abreast of the constantly growing immigrant population. Increased marketable skills are an advantage of bilingual fluency. Because of the aforementioned educational advantages, bilinguals can offer a flexibility and level of problem-solving ability that surpasses the average monolingual. According to Graciela Kenig, author of The Best Careers for Bilingual Latinos: Market Your Fluency in Spanish to get Ahead on the Job, employers are looking for people “with a broader scope of experience and strong problem-solving ability.
” (1998, p. 5). The marketplace is also focusing on the global economy. Bilinguals are uniquely qualified to give the U. S. a competitive edge. The utilization of well-educated American bilinguals can give our country a significant advantage in the global marketplace. In aspect of Rudolph Giuliani’s view that bilingual education doesn’t work and that it is too expensive should be better thought out and he should look at the benefits that come from it. Giuliani was quoted regarding bilingual education by saying, “It’s cruel to them and gives them less of a chance to succeed” (Willen, 1998).
Giuliani has some reason to argue that it is too expensive considering that “New York City alone spends $300 million annually on its program serving 126,000 students” (Chavez, 1995). In addition, Giuliani has a reason to argue that bilingual education it too time consuming considering the outrageous number of students who are eligible for bilingual classes. Although these are good reasons Giuliani should realize that, “half the Hispanic children in bilingual classes (New York City) are American-born. And many- if not most- speak English better than they do Spanish” (Chavez, 1995).
The number one reason why these students are enrolled in these particular classes is because that New York automatically places these students in these classes by whether or not they score above the 40th percentile on a standard eyes test. These tests should not be done because it is evident that the students are learning English just maybe not as fast at other students. Giuliani’s claims are somewhat relevant but he should consider all of the benefits that come from bilingual education. Although Giuliani believes it is too expensive this should not be an issue considering that our country can benefit as a whole with multilingualism.
During the Restrictive Period (1880s-1960s) the need of being able to effectively communicate in English was motivating immigrants to learn the language and assimilate into society (Ovando, 2003). Single language was meant to unify the members of a society (Schaefer, 2003, p. 66). However, today conformity to a single language would probably be regarded as “racist” (Mujica, 2003). Currently, most people would rather agree with Eliana D. Rojas, an assistant professor of bilingual education, that the right to maintain one’s native language and culture is a part of a person’s human rights (Mujica).
The main reason so many people protest attempts to implement bilingual programs in public schools is a belief that such step will lead to dissolving the unity of the country. The government provides funds for translators in most government organizations which allow immigrants to function in their own language, doesn’t encourage foreigners to learn English and thus isolates them from the rest of the community. In response, they are more likely to form a small group or even a subculture within the dominant society with different norms, values and language. “We cannot assimilate and we won’t!
” one day proclaimed the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, an organization originally supporting pro assimilation (Mujica, 2003, p. 2). According to the Census statistics in 2000, 18 percent of American population over the age of 5 speaks a language other than English as their primary language (Schaefer, 2003, p. 65), while 8 percent of them are classified as “limited English proficient” (Mujica, 2003, p. 2). Hispanic population is the fastest growing minority in the U. S. and large parts of the country are becoming increasingly “Latinized”.
Americans “feel strangers in their own neighborhoods and aliens in their own country” (Schaefer, 2003, p. 66). It may look like sooner or later we will have to say “Hasta la Vista to the ‘United’ States and Adelante to Canadian-style discord over the issues of language and ethnicity” (Mujica, 2003, p. 4). Therefore, blaming such programs as bilingual instructing in schools is based primarily on nationalistic concerns. The recent studies have proven, though, that only a small percent of children attending bilingual classrooms will still be able to communicate in their native language in a few years (Worthy, 2003).
In some ESL classes students are actually encouraged to maintain their first language and are introduced to elements from both American and their native cultures. It seems apparent that a child will more likely associate himself or herself with other immigrants rather than Americans and it may seem hard for that student to assimilate into American society. It may be difficult for him or her to learn English later because any language cannot be taught successfully in isolation – proficient communicational skills can only develop through everyday practice and a practical need to apply new knowledge.
In reality it takes about the same time for a person to learn English in the all-English class than gradually switching from the native language to the regular English instructing. Despite the fact they differ in the length of the transition to English and how long they allow students to remain in bilingual classrooms, all ESL students receive enough practice and even become monolingual English speakers pretty soon, as a yearlong study of fifth-grade children attending bilingual class has proven (Worthy, 2003).
As the teacher encouraged students to read, write and speak Spanish, most of them were losing their ability to communicate in Spanish and had English as their dominant language both in school and informal situations. The study concludes that at a certain time social and peer pressure are more important for children than family influence, the reason why many of them started feeling uncomfortable speaking their native language with their friends (Worthy, 2003). Evidently, bilingual education is an asset to our country and the benefits can be seen throughout our global economy.
People such as Giuliani should embrace the idea of this type of education and should help fund programs as it will undoubtedly further enrich our economy. In addition, why should students loose their native language simply for the reason that the majority of people speak English? The ability to speak multiple languages enables them for future aspirations, success, and priority over those who can only speak only English fluently. Our society extremely benefits from bilingual education and there no significant reason for eliminating it.
All in all, bilingual education in public schools is definitely not a threat to an official language or unity of the country. Nor it is a waste of funds since it is so essential in children’s first years of education. ESL classes do not slow down assimilation, and even if in some cases American culture is so diverse that even abolishing all programs helping immigrants to maintain their language will not have a great impact on American melting pot. Instead, English-only initiatives have only negative consequences for limited-English proficient groups and their interaction with the dominant society (Barker, 2001).
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