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Bilingualism/Bilingual Education

Use of a language other than English in public school classrooms.

The language rights of ethnic minorities in the United States have been a source of public controversy for close to two decades. The 1970s saw record levels of immigration, bringing an estimated 4 million legal and 8 million illegal immigrants into the country. To accommodate this dramatic surge in the nation's population of foreign language speakers, language assistance has been mandated on the federal, state, and local levels in areas ranging from voting and tax collection to education, social services, disaster assistance, and consumer rights. Today Massachusetts offers driver's license tests in 24 languages; residents of California can choose one of six different languages when they vote; street signs in some parts of Miami are printed in both English and Spanish; and classroom instruction is taught in 115 different languages in New York City schools. Altogether, over 300 languages are spoken in the United States. As of 1990,31.8 million Americans spoke a language other than English at home, and the country's population included6.7 million non-English speakers. Nationwide, one-third of the children enrolled in urban schools speak a language other than English at home as their first language. Around 2.6 million schoolchildren throughout the country do not speak English at all.

Organized opposition to bilingualism, which collectively became known as the English-Only movement, began in the 1980s. In 1980 voters in Dade County, Florida, designated English as their official language. The following year, U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa of California introduced a constitutional amendment to make English the country's official language. Two influential English-Only lobbying groups were formed: U.S. English, in 1983, and English First, in 1986. In 1986, with the passage of Proposition 63, English became the official language of California. By the mid-1990s, 22 states had passed similar measures. In August 1996, the U.S. House of Representatives, by a margin of 259-169, passed a bill to make English the official language of the federal government. (However, President Bill Clinton vowed to veto the bill if it passed the Senate.) Observers attribute the English-Only movement to backlash against immigration and affirmative action, spurred by fear of competition for jobs and resentment of government spending on bilingual programs.

The government program that has drawn the most fire is bilingual education, which costs taxpayers an estimated $200 million a year in federal funds and billions of dollars in state and local expenditures. Bilingual education programs, which allow students to pursue part of their study in their first language and part in English, were first mandated by Congress in 1968. The constitutionality of bilingual education was upheld in a 1974 Supreme Court ruling affirming that the city of San Francisco had discriminated against 18,000 Chinese-American students by failing to make special provisions to help them overcome the linguistic barriers they faced in school. However, the court did not specify what these provisions should be, and educators have evolved several different methods of instruction for students with first languages other than English. With the immersion (or "sink or swim") approach, nearly all instruction is in English, and the students are expected to pick up the language through intensive exposure. If the teacher is bilingual, the students may be allowed to ask questions in their native language, but the teacher is supposed to answer them in English. The English as a Second Language (ESL) approach, often used in a class where students speak more than one foreign language, takes a more gradual approach to mastering English, using it in conjunction with the student's first language. English-only instruction may be offered, but only in some, rather than all, classes.

The remaining methods rely more heavily on the student's first language. Even though, technically, all teaching methods aimed at meeting the needs of foreign language speakers are considered bilingual education, participants in debates about bilingual education often single out the following methods as targets of praise or criticism. In Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE), students study English but are taught all other academic subjects in their native languages until they are considered ready to switch to English. In some cases, bilingual teachers also help the students improve their skills in their native language. Bilingual/bicultural programs use the students' native languages not only to teach them the standard curriculum but also for special classes about their ethnic heritage and its history and culture. Two-way or dual language programs enroll students from different backgrounds with the goal of having all of them become bilingual, including those who speak only English. For example, Spanish-speaking children may learn English while their English-speaking classmates learn Spanish.

Critics of bilingual education (or of those methods that rely heavily on the students' native languages) claim that it fails to provide children with an adequate knowledge of English, thus disadvantaging them academically, and they cite high dropout rates for Hispanic teenagers, the group most likely to have received instruction in their native language. They accuse school systems of continuing to promote bilingual programs to protect the jobs of bilingual educators and receive federal funding allocated for such programs. As evidence of this charge, they cite barriers placed in the way of parents who try to remove their children from bilingual programs. Hispanic parents in New York City have claimed that their children are being railroaded into bilingual programs by a system that requires all children with Spanish surnames, as well as children of any nationality who have non-English-speaking family members, to take a language proficiency exam. Children scoring in the bottom 40% are then required to enroll in bilingual classes even if English is the primary language spoken at home. Critics of bilingual instruction also cite a 1994 New York City study that reported better results for ESL instruction than for methods that taught children primarily in their native languages.

In spite of the criticism it has aroused, bilingual education is strongly advocated by many educators. Defenders cite a 1991 study endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences stating that children who speak a foreign language learn English more rapidly and make better overall academic progress when they receive several years of instruction in their native language. A later study, conducted at George Mason University, tracked 42,000 children who had received bilingual instruction and reported that the highest scores on standardized tests in the eleventh grade were earned by those students who had had six years of bilingual education. Programs with two way bilingual education have had particularly impressive results. Oyster Bilingual Elementary School in Washington, D.C., (whose student body is 58% Hispanic, 26% white, 12% black, and 4% Asian) is admiringly cited as a model for bilingual education. Its sixth graders read at a ninth-grade level and have tenth-grade-level math skills. Experts on both sides of the controversy agree that for any teaching method to be successful, the teaching must be done by qualified instructors equipped with adequate teaching materials in appropriately assigned classes with a reasonable ratio of students to teachers.

Further Reading

Chavez, Linda. Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Crawford, James. Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of "English-Only." Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1992.

Harlan, Judith. Bilingualism in the United States: Conflict and Controversy. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991.

Lang, Paul. The English Language Debate: One Nation, One Language! Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.

Porter, Rosalie Pedalino. Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education. New York: Basic Books, 1990.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.

Simon, Paul. The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis. New York: Continuum, 1980.

Further Information

Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, Inc. (META). 240A Elm Street, Suite 22, Somerville, MA 02144.

National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE). Union Center Plaza, 1220 L Street NW, Suite 605, Washington, DC 20005.

U.S. English. 818 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006.

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