Many Truths, in Many Languages
There is a topic that can turn a teacher's workroom into a wrestling ring in five minutes flat. When done well, it leaves children fully versatile in two languages. Done poorly, it keeps them incapable of expressing their thoughts in any language at all. It's called bilingual education, and it is one of the most controversial issues in public schools today. And in no place does it generate more heat than Southern California, where Nick and I spent the past week conducting research and interviews.
First, a little history: Contrary to popular belief, bilingual education is not a recent school of thought. Our country has been doing it since the 18th century. Students could be taught in German, Dutch, French or Swedish in some schools in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. French was taught in Louisiana schools for years while students in Pittsburgh learned Greek. In fact, it was only after the First World War that Americans really started pushing an English agenda. Some schools went a little overboard and actually banned foreign languages so that young minds wouldn't fall prey to "enemy tongues." (Fortunately, that practice was ceased in the early 1920s).
Now let's jump ahead to the 1960s, when Latino activists started protesting the fact that more than 50 percent of Spanish-speaking students were dropping out of school nationwide. Riding on the fuel of the Civil Rights Movement, they called for legislation that would help these young Latinos. In 1968, Congress responded with The Bilingual Education Act, which gave school districts money to incorporate students' native languages into the classroom. The Supreme Court case of Lau v. Nichols further ruled that kids had a right to learn in a language they could understand. Schools scrambled about, implementing bilingual education into their curriculum.
So how does "bilingual education" work? The initial idea went something like this: Every student would be tested on their language capabilities. If their English was weak, they would be enrolled in a bilingual education class. There, teachers would use both English and the students' native language (such as Chinese) to teach every subject. That way, Chinese-speaking students would be able to keep up with their English-speaking classmates in subjects like science and math while they worked on improving their English. Then, as soon as they were ready, they'd leave the bilingual program and join a regular, English-only class. In the beginning, educators thought this process would take about three years. Instead, many students (particularly Latinos) were taking four to seven years. In California, only 6.7 percent of students were making the leap to English-only classes each year. Worse yet, Latinos were still dropping out of school at astronomical rates.
This brings us to the $64,000 question: Is bilingual education to blame? Well, like many things in life, it depends on whom you ask. Some said bilingual education was the absolute worst thing you could do to a child and others contended that anything else would be a violation of their Civil Rights. The more we learned, the more complex it all became.
Let's start off with a no-brainer: Is there a need for bilingual education? Probably everyone agrees that it's critical for immigrants to learn English in this country in order to succeed in the market economy. But what about native languages? Should immigrants hang on to those as well? Should they teach it to their children?
Do we value second languages in this society? Well, let's think about it. Most students are required to take at least two years of a foreign language in order to graduate from high school. That shows we care at least a little. But what can you really learn in a 50-minute class a couple of times a week? In Europe, students study multiple languages throughout their education. Every European I've met in my travels could speak at least three languages, and some as many as six.
Why don't Americans? I asked Dr. Teresa Carrillo, an associate professor of La Raza Studies at San Francisco State University, for her thoughts. "We are failing to realize the academic and educational riches that immigrant kids bring to school. They have an amazing capacity for language, but that is not validated as a skill. We only care about what they can't do - speak English," she said. A Mexican-American, Dr. Carrillo regrets not having learned Spanish as a child. She managed to pick it up in college, though, and decided to give her kids an early start by teaching it at home. "We figured our kids would make the switch to English soon enough, so we only spoke Spanish at home. Sure enough, when they got to school, peer pressure made them transition to English," she said. "What was interesting was how, at a very young age, they perceived that Spanish-speaking people are devalued in our society. They had a Spanish-speaking baby-sitter with whom they were happy speaking to in Spanish at home, but they used to ask her to quit speaking Spanish in the store. And that was when they were only 5 years old." Fortunately, Dr. Carrillo's children have retained their mother tongue and now derive a great deal of pride from it. Dr. Maria Quezada, interim executive director for the California Association for Bilingual Education, fears that others may not be so lucky.
"Research shows that languages can be lost by the second generation. Children are learning English and forgetting their own language. This is a loss of family," she said. Sadly, not everyone seems to share Dr. Quezada and Dr. Carrillo's concern for this preservation of language. In 1998, California voters passed the highly controversial Proposition 227, which requires public schools to conduct their classes in English. Any student with a deficiency in English would be put in an intense, English-only immersion class for one year before being mainstreamed into regular classes. It wasn't exactly 'Hasta la vista' to bilingual education, but it has significantly altered the way in which 25 percent of California students are taught. According to Holly Ellman, a seventh-year teacher and advisor for Los Angeles Unified School District, Proposition 227 has been a welcome change.
"Initially I came to the schools a proponent of bilingual education, but I saw that it wasn't working. We would teach kids in Spanish and they would use it as a crutch to get by and not learn English," she said. "It was really a disservice to the kids. The philosophy of bilingual education is right on, but the way it was implemented in our schools was not. We didn't have the teachers or the training or the resources to do it right."
Nowadays when students come to an LA Unified school, they are tested to see if they are English proficient, Spanish proficient, both or neither. From there, parents are given the option of enrolling them in several different classes - one of which resembles a traditional bilingual education class. But according to Ellman, these classes aren't much help when the students are classified as a "neither."
"When kids come in with an impoverished background, they are at an automatic disadvantage. You'd hope they'd at least be literate in their native language, but often they're not because maybe their parents aren't. They can understand Spanish, but they can't really speak it. I've had kids who didn't even know their name," she said. "At the same time, we have Armenian kids who come in without speaking a word of English and by the end of the year they are the top student in the class. Maybe it's because their parents have a high degree of education, even though they may not speak English themselves. I don't think that other immigrants value education any less, but when they come from a country where their main concern is eating and surviving, well, they are going to be at a disadvantage when they come to America."
By this point in the interviewing process, my head was swimming. It seemed that every person I met made me see bilingual education in an entirely different light. So I decided to visit a class for myself. After some research, Nick and I chose an elementary school in West Los Angeles called Cahuenga.
A personal plea / Doing all this research on bilingual education has caused me to reflect on my own experiences with languages. As I mention in my roots dispatch
Approximately 1,200 of its 1,300 students could barely speak a word of English the day they arrived. According to administrators, they will be bilingual in either English and Spanish or English and Korean by the time they graduate from their 'dual immersion program.' Some will even be trilingual. Nick and I observed the 'dual immersion' kindergarten class of Tok Miller.Of her 20 students, 15 were native Korean speakers. The others (whose native countries included Bangladesh, China, Cuba and the Philippines) spoke English as a second language. In the beginning, Ms. Miller taught the class in Korean about 85 percent of the time. She has since moved down to 65 percent. Nick and I watched in amazement as children who could barely say 'hello' just four and a half months ago constructed simple sentences about the bedtime story "The Gingerbread Man."
"If you come to us with a second language, we want to build upon it," Assistant Principal Adeline Shoji told us. "We encourage our parents to continue speaking with their children in the second language. Very quickly, students transition to English at the same level they already know Korean or Spanish. And if they stay with the program through high school, they'll be capable of studying at the top universities in either Korea or America."
This school was truly a delight. Absolutely everything was written in multiple languages - from the day's date at the top corner of the chalkboard to the signs on the bathrooms. Bookshelves were filled with workbooks, story books and coloring books written in English, Spanish and Korean. When the students were called out to recess, I heard some calling out in one language and answering in another.
Cahuenga, it seemed, had found the right formula for a successful program: top-rate teachers who are fully bilingual, resources, and dedicated parents. But, as Ellman pointed out, not every school is so lucky. LA Unified is already so crowded, many schools have resorted to a year-round system. They simply don't have the resources or the teachers to do bilingual education right. Besides, the problems run much deeper than that.
"Here's what we're up against as teachers. No matter how hard we work, at the end of the day, some kids are just going to get plopped down in front of a TV, and their dad is going to beat their mom, and their neighbors are going to be selling drugs outside. No matter how hard we work, we aren't going to make a difference for those kids," she said.
This brings us back to the $64,000 question: Is bilingual education really to blame for the problems in our schools? How can students be expected to learn any language at all if they don't have loving, dedicated parents and a safe place to sleep at night? Perhaps it's time we look inward to the real root of the problem. Is it the schools, or is it us?
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Links to Other Dispatches
Stephanie - The making of a super man and the uniting of a people
Stephen - A secret clause and the loss of native lands
Nick - It's ours so we're taking it back! Get off of our island!
Nick - Mr. Swiss! Can I order a pizza?