Pros and Cons of Bilingual Education

Bilingual education has become very popular lately, with perhaps the most compelling reason for bilingual education being the concept of equality of education in our country. How is it possible for someone to obtain a great education when he or she doesn't fully understand the language the lessons are being taught in? Isn't that student going to become a second-class citizen? Should we just allow that to happen or should we teach them in their native language and worry about assimilation at some later time? The fact is that there are a lot of pros and cons about the subject.

On the positive side, there are many benefits of students learning another language at a very early age. It has been proven that children who learn to speak another language early in life have an easier time grasping the vocabulary, grammar, and nuances of both languages. It has also been shown that these same students will be able to move on to learning third and fourth languages just as easily. The reasons for this are varied, but one of the principal reasons is that many languages have their roots in a single ancient language such as Latin or Greek. As the nationalities have developed, their languages changed but kept a lot of the same words and word structure. Also as the world shrinks and everything becomes more global in nature, it is going to become ever more important to be able to communicate in more than one language.

There is no denying that bilingual education lessons should be taught to students at the elementary level. Waiting until high school will only make it more difficult on the children. Once a student becomes familiar with a second language it is much easier for him or her to master it as they grow older. It is also a good thing when students learn about the culture of different countries, which is enhanced by learning the language. Studies have proven that the ability to speak multiple languages does not confuse the mind. In fact, it helps to develop it faster and lead to a well rounded future.

On the negative side, there are people who feel that bilingual education is a bad idea because it takes away our sense of national identity. The United States has always been known as a "melting pot" of cultures where everyone is treated equally and every culture becomes assimilated into the primary culture of the United States. Historically, newcomers to this country have been forced to learn our English language and many of our ways, all the while contributing parts of their historic culture and making the entire culture better as a result. The argument is that by retaining the language of their old country, they are no longer as easily assimilated into this country.

Bilingual education is a concern in other countries as well as in the United States. For example, there is currently a movement underway in France to ensure that French remains the dominant language and that all citizens learn to speak French. Similarly in the United States many people feel that we as a country have gone too far overboard in making all the other cultures comfortable by printing everything in their home languages. The problem that is brought up is that, by printing everything in multiple native languages, the newcomers don't have to learn English. And if they don't learn English they will never be fully assimilated into the United States. By thus creating nationalistic cliques some people say that we are potentially creating the same type of societal issues that are found in other parts of the world and that those who are immigrating to the United States are frequently running away from. My personal belief is that children from other cultures who may speak other languages at home need to become familiar with English and that English should be the required language for all governmental affairs.

In summary, bilingual education is not a way to take anything away from American students. In fact, it is just the opposite. Language is an important part of the learning process. Young students are in position to learn a second language early on, which will benefit them greatly in the future. This is why so many school districts are implementing bilingual education criteria at lower grade levels. However, let us all recognize that there are issues to be faced in bilingual education and our schools and our society will need to face these issues fully.

Grace Mckenna writes on a wide range of topics concerning teaching, the school system, and particularly how the internet (aka the World Wide Web) impacts teachers and their interaction with the school, parents and children. More of her articles can be found at

Landmark Year For Bilingual Education

The year 1974 was a landmark year for bilingual education, due in part, to the U.S. Supreme Court Lau v. Nichols decision, which found that the San Francisco schools were failing to offer a meaningful education to English language learners by providing them the same materials and curricula as native English speakers. The San Francisco Unified School District SFUSD requested that the Center for Applied Linguistics send a team to work with the schools and a community advisory committee to develop a master plan to respond to the decision.

Although the Supreme Court had avoided prescribing a specific remedy, CAL's plan, which adopted bilingual education as the most appropriate response, was accepted by the appellate court and indirectly influenced the interpretation of the Lau decision by the Office for Civil Rights as requiring bilingual education under certain circumstances. Although this requirement proved controversial, CAL played a central role in the evolution of official federal policy in this arena.

Concerned about the need for dissemination of research information to the field, CAL initiated the publication of a series of papers in bilingual education in 1975 and published the first book collection of papers on Mexican American Spanish and a research bibliography of linguistic work on the language of U.S. Spanish speakers. CAL also played a significant role in the development of long-term plans for research and information dissemination, as authorized in the 1974 Title VII legislation.

CAL worked closely with the staff of the National Institute of Education in the design of the National Center for Bilingual Research, and after the contract was awarded to the Southwest Educational Research Laboratory, CAL, with its long experience in information clearinghouse activities, formulated the design for the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (NCBE, now known as NCELA).

When the project was designated as a minority business procurement, CAL became a partner with InterAmerica Associates, which served as prime contractor for the project. Rudolph Troike became deputy director of the Clearinghouse, and Joel Gómez became director. NCBE for a number of years served as an important central coordinating hub for cooperation and information dissemination throughout the country among various units involved in bilingual education.

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Discussions of Bilingual Education

In the United States, most politicized discussions of bilingual education policy have focused on language minority children. Frequently, their backgrounds in languages other than English are assumed to be the cause of their educational deficiencies. Title VII policies were largely predicated on this view, even though advocates of bilingual education tend to see minority languages as personal and societal resources rather than as detriments.

At best, the deficit view has tended to result in policies aimed only at accommodating children from home backgrounds in which languages other than English were spoken and lower expectations for their academic achievement were accepted. Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, there has been much fanfare regarding the need to promote higher expectations for all children.

Nevertheless, as critics have pointed out, NCLB has provided no clear direction on how to promote equitable programs and meaningful assessment of language minority children. Thus, NCLB has left language minority children in a policy limbo. The primary debate has been over whether to assess children through English and how quickly to do so, although it has been widely recognized that most language minority children will not perform well on tests administered in English when these children have not had sufficient time to develop English and academic skills.

Proponents of NCLB have countered that all children must be held to high standards to ensure accountability. A possible danger in this scenario is that high standards, along with underfunded and poorly planned programs, fail to result in the level playing field needed for high achievement. Again, a negative note in the history of federally supported bilingual education is that even as opponents of bilingual decried the "failure" of bilingual education, the vast majority of children eligible for Title VII services were not receiving instruction in their home languages and often received no specially designed instruction to develop the English language skills needed for advanced academic instruction.

In some states restricting bilingual education, such as in California even prior to the passage of its Proposition 227, teachers in so-called bilingual programs often did not speak the home language of many children. Again, these programs were labeled "bilingual" merely because the children came from homes where languages other than English were taught.

Thus, based on the erroneous assumption that children in "bilingual" programs were receiving instruction in languages other than English, rather than in English alone, bilingual education policies were blamed when language minorities under-performed on standardized tests in English.

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