Educational Policy and Bilingualism (page 3)
This country has vacillated in its stance with respect to languages other than English throughout its history. The federal Constitution makes no mention of language, allowing linguistic differences to play out in a variety of ways. In times of relative peace and prosperity, the country has been accepting of other languages. Into the early 1900s, for example, German-speaking populations in this country had their own schools and newspapers. When the economy is poor, or when immigration increases to the point that people feel that their own culture is threatened, attitudes toward languages other than English become more hostile. From time to time, prominent voices, such as Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, have spoken out against the use of other languages. The two world wars had a dramatic effect on general attitudes toward foreign languages, to the extent that during World War I, Americans were urged to eat liberty cabbage rather than the German sauerkraut, and Salisbury steak rather than hamburger. Enrollments in foreign-language instruction in high schools dropped precipitously after World War I, not just in German, but in all languages (Daniels 1990b, p. 9). We will return to the question of public and official positions on languages other than English, as they have in recent years once again surfaced as matters of heated public debate.
We might first consider what shape multilingualism takes in this country. As we have said before, it does not take the form of languages competing for dominance. Rather, English is the generally accepted language of public discourse, while other languages exist alongside it among segments of the population. In some cases, they are brought with them by immigrant populations. In other cases, such as Spanish in the Southwest and Native American languages, they were spoken here before English was and were brought into the fold of English involuntarily. People in this country who speak a language other than English are often bilingual, with English as their second language. Immigrant populations, who have moved here voluntarily, tend to pass through a bilingual stage and become monolingual in English by the third generation (Daniels 1990b, p. 3). Those populations for whom English has been imposed as a dominant language are more resistant to assimilation, and bilingualism tends to persist (Paulston 1981, p. 476).
Bilingual Education in the U.S.
What bilingualism means for the educational system in the United States is that large numbers of children come to school not knowing English or with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) because they speak another language as their first language. Up until recent times, as was the case with dialects other than Standard English, educational systems took a sink-or-swim approach to the learning of English, sometimes known as the submersion method. Children were placed into English-speaking classrooms with no systematic accommodations made for their limited proficiency in English. Needless to say, having to learn subject matter at the same time you are learning the language in which it is taught puts an enormous strain on the learner and raises serious questions about a child’s right to equal access to education when others are already proficient in English. In 1968, the federal government responded to this concern with what is known as the Bilingual Education Act (actually the Title VII amendment to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act) (Paulston 1981, p. 482). This legislation provided for federal funds to be used to facilitate the transition from a child’s first language to English, which paved the way for the development of bilingual education programs throughout the country.
Another milestone in the history of bilingual education was the 1974 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Lau v. Nichols. In this case, Chinese parents took the San Francisco Unified School District to court for failing to accommodate their child’s first language. Relying on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor on the grounds that “students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education” (Paulston 1981, p. 482). As a result, the school district agreed to establish bilingual programs in Cantonese (a dialect of Chinese), Spanish, and Tagalog (a language of the Philippines). At around the same time, other places in the country began to develop bilingual education programs, with Massachusetts as the first state to pass legislation making bilingual education mandatory.
Once the groundwork was laid for bilingual education, differences of philosophy emerged about the appropriate purpose of such programs. The Bilingual Education Act clearly envisioned a transitional model for bilingual education. That is, funds were intended to help LEP children become proficient in English so that they would have equal access to subject matter. On the other hand, many favored a maintenance model of bilingual education, in which a child’s first language and culture were to be nurtured and sustained. As Paulston (1981) tells us:
The U.S. programs may legally be transitional in nature, but the major proponents for them, especially those members of the ethnic groups involved in implementing the new directives, invariably refer to the programs as bilingual/bicultural and see the objectives as stable bilingualism with maintenance of the home culture as well as the home language. (p. 483)
Programs of both the transitional and the maintenance variety can be found in operation around the country, the details of which are worked out at the local level. For example, in New Mexico, educational administrators work with Native American tribal authorities to set up bilingual education policies (Lippi-Green 1997, p. 116). Debates over the relative value of the transitional vs. the maintenance model of bilingual education continue, often mirroring debates about the most appropriate ways to incorporate minority dialects of English into education.
The Implementation of Bilingual Education
In more recent years, public debate has shifted from concerns about how to implement bilingual education to whether we should, as a nation, support it at all. In 1998, for example, Californians passed Proposition 227, a referendum that effectively eliminates the use of a child’s first language in instruction except under very limited circumstances. As we will see in the next section, there is a strong movement at all levels of government across the country to support English as the official language, threatening public funding for programs that support languages other than English.
The current situation of bilingualism in this country is one that educators must respond to, one way or another. As we have seen, bilingualism takes many forms around the world. In many places, children are exposed to more than one language virtually from birth and learn them simultaneously in the effortless way that characterizes first-language acquisition. In other cases a second, or even third, language is introduced to students in the educational setting and is used for controlled academic purposes. In this country, the situation is more fluid and more problematic. We are faced with the challenges of educating increasing numbers of children of immigrants who do not speak English as a first language, many of them from Spanish-speaking countries. We know from research and experience that acquiring a second language becomes more difficult with age and after a certain age people rarely achieve the same degree of competence they have in their first language. More important, teaching immigrant children to speak English is only part of the job facing educators; they are also responsible for making them literate in English and teaching them the subject matter that we expect all children to learn in the course of their schooling. Bilingual programs were developed in response to this overwhelming responsibility as well as in response to the principle of equal access to education for all children. They were designed to help facilitate the transition from a child’s first language to English and to provide a means to educate children in subject matter while this transition was taking place.
What, then, is the source of public opposition to such programs? Cummins (2000, pp. 32–33) outlines some of the objections to bilingual education that emerged in the debate surrounding Proposition 227. Opponents of bilingual education, including many Spanish-speaking parents, argue that children in these programs are educationally disadvantaged because they do not have enough access to English during the school day. They believe that children will learn more effectively if they are instructed completely in English, and they point to the apparent failure of bilingual education students to keep pace academically with their native-English peers. Others argue that we have done well without bilingual education in the past, that the programs are expensive and often mismanaged, and that students are often kept in bilingual programs long beyond the point that they are effective, again denying them full access to the language they truly need to succeed in this country. We must also keep in mind that these discussions are never purely about educational policy and are embedded in larger discussions about immigration and national identity.
Proponents of bilingual education argue that such programs can be effective and that the true disadvantage to immigrant children comes with lack of recognition of their first language in the schools. But we must, in judging the effectiveness of bilingual education programs, take into account the realities of becoming educated in a second language. Cummins (2000), for example, makes a strong case that in order to recognize the successes of bilingual education, we need to understand the distinction between conversational English and academic English. Immigrant children learn conversational English rather quickly from their peers, giving them the appearance of being proficient in English. But it takes them a much longer time to catch up to their native-English peers in the kinds of English required in the academic setting, at least five years and perhaps more (Cummins 2000, p. 16). Evidence that immigrant children are lagging behind their peers comes from interim testing, before they have had the time to catch up and while their native-English peers continue to progress as well, widening the gap even more and demoralizing students and teachers alike. Supporters of bilingual education programs argue that the most effective programs are those that develop academic skills in the first language in the early years (Cummins 2000; Krashen 1996). They point to many studies that have shown that children who have strong academic backgrounds in their first language achieve higher levels of academic skills in English. Contrary to popular sentiment (at least in recent years), they maintain that initial instruction in a child’s first language contributes to, rather than detracts from, success in English. In short, literacy transfers.
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