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The Pros of Bilingual Education (page 2)

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

What About Languages Other Than Spanish?

Porter (1990) states that "even if there were a demonstrable advantage for Spanish-speakers learning to read first in their home language, it does not follow that the same holds true for speakers of languages that do not use the Roman alphabet" (p. 65). But it does. The ability to read transfers across languages, even when the writing systems are different.

There is evidence that reading ability transfers from Chinese to English (Hoover, 1982), from Vietnamese to English (Cummins, Swain, Nakajima, Handscombe, Green, & Tran, 1984), from Japanese to English (Cummins et al.), and from Turkish to Dutch (Verhoeven, 1991). In other words, those who read well in one language, read well in the second language (as long as length of residence in the country is taken into account because of the first language loss that is common).

Bilingual Education and Public Opinion

Opponents of bilingual education tell us that the public is against bilingual education. This impression is a result of the way the question is asked. One can easily get a near-100-percent rejection of bilingual education when the question is biased. Porter (1990), for example, states that "Many parents are not committed to having the schools maintain the mother tongue if it is at the expense of gaining a sound education and the English-language skills needed for obtaining jobs or pursuing higher education" (p. 8). Who would support mother tongue education at such a price?

However, when respondents are simply asked whether or not they support bilingual education, the degree of support is quite strong: From 60-99 percent of samples of parents and teachers say they support bilingual education (Krashen, 1996). In a series of studies, Shin (Shin, 1994; Shin & Gribbons, 1996) examined attitudes toward the principles underlying bilingual education. Shin found that many respondents agree with the idea that the first language can be helpful in providing background knowledge, most agree that literacy transfers across languages, and most support the principles underlying continuing bilingual education (economic and cognitive advantages).

The number of people opposed to bilingual education is probably even less than these results suggest; many people who say they are opposed to bilingual education are actually opposed to certain practices (e.g., inappropriate placement of children) or are opposed to regulations connected to bilingual education (e.g., forcing teachers to acquire another language to keep their jobs).

Despite what is presented to the public in the national media, research has revealed much support for bilingual education. McQuillan and Tse (in press) reviewed publications appearing between 1984 and 1994, and reported that 87 percent of academic publications supported bilingual education, but newspaper and magazine opinion articles tended to be antibilingual education, with only 45 percent supporting bilingual education. One wonders what public support would look like if bilingual education were more clearly defined in such articles and editorials.

The Research Debate

It is sometimes claimed that research does not support the efficacy of bilingual education. Its harshest critics, however (e.g., Rossell & Baker, 1996), do not claim that bilingual education does not work; instead, they claim there is little evidence that it is superior to all-English programs. Nevertheless, the evidence used against bilingual education is not convincing. One major problem is in labeling. Several critics, for example, have claimed that English immersion programs in El Paso and McAllen, Texas, were shown to be superior to bilingual education. In each case, however, programs labeled immersion were really bilingual education, with a substantial part of the day taught in the primary language. In another study, Gersten (1985) claimed that all-English immersion was better than bilingual education. However, the sample size was small and the duration of the study was short; also, no description of "bilingual education" was provided. For a detailed discussion, see Krashen (1996).

On the other hand, a vast number of other studies have shown that bilingual education is effective, with children in well-designed programs acquiring academic English at least as well and often better than children in all-English programs (Cummins, 1989; Krashen, 1996; Willig, 1985). Willig concluded that the better the experimental design of the study, the more positive were the effects of bilingual education.

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