The United States of America is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse countries of the world. People from all over the globe come to the United States with the hope for better future of their children. Historical inflow of immigrants created a situation in which bilingual education has become a necessity. Moreover, there are thousands of children who have American citizenship but do not speak English language as they were born to foreign parents and grew up in culturally different environment. As the result, many of the schools introduced the bilingual system of education under which children whose native language is not English are given an opportunity to study in their native language. From one side, bilingual education helps children who do not speak English to gain fundamental knowledge in the most effective way. From the other side, bilingual education makes these children unprepared for life in the United States as the official language is English. Controversy of bilingual education has a long history while it is still not clear whether the benefits of it outweigh the disadvantages.
The Bilingual Education Act
“The Bilingual Education Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson without a single voice raised in dissent” (Crawford, 1998, p. 52). Thirty years of debate has passed while there is no consent on what the act was supposed to accomplish. There are no answers to the questions whether the law was intended primary to assimilate limited-English-proficient children more efficiently or to teach them English as rapidly as possible. There is an opinion that bilingual education law was signed to remedy academic underachievement and high dropout rates as well as to raise the self-esteem of minority students. Nevertheless, there is little evidence available to prove the assumption that bilingual education promotes social equality or increases the chances of minority children becoming full citizens of the United States.
From standpoint of pedagogy, research findings confirm that “developing fluent bilingualism and cultivating academic excellence are complementary, rather than contradictory goals” (Crawford, 1998, p. 54). Sacrificing the native language of students is not necessary to teach them the English language effectively. In addition, language is not the only barrier to school success in children while native-language instruction is extremely helpful in overcoming such obstacles as poverty, social stigmatization, and family illiteracy which is often associated with the minority status. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of bilingual education requires sufficient investment into the development of program models, adaptation to local conditions, training of teachers, development of materials, and involvement of parents.
From a political perspective, research suggests that the educational rationale for bilingual education is complex and counterintuitive to society. “Since the mid-1980s, many U.S. votes have reacted defensively against that racial, cultural, and language diversity brought by rising levels of immigration” (Crawford, 1998, 56). In other words, the public supports the legal protection of the English language. Nineteen of the state laws designate English as the only language of government. Progress in acquiring English language skills by immigrant children is regarded as a matter of urgency.
Bilingual education is referred to as a preferred strategy for 21st-century students. In simple words, bilingual education aims at teaching academic subjects to immigrant children in their native language while simultaneously adding instruction in English. The theory suggests that “the children do not fall behind in other subjects while they are learning English. When they are fluent in English, they can then transition to English instruction in academic subjects at the grade level of their peers” (Rothstein, 1998, p. 672). Children of immigrants are taught in their native language, the one their family and community values, and they are allowed to reinforce their sense of self-worth making their academic success more probable.
Critics of bilingual education, on the other side, point out that public schools historically assimilated immigrants to American culture to impact their workplace skills essential for productive employment. Today, minority community leaders oppose assimilation and want instruction to preserve the native culture and ethnic traditions. With the proximity to Mexico and the increasing number of Spanish-speaking population in the United States of America, bilingual education gives Spanish-speaking children a chance to ‘keep afoot in both camps’ without being forced to assimilate with mainstream culture. From one side, bilingual education is imposed because failure to learn English leaves minorities unprepared for the workplace. On the other side, high dropout rates for immigrant children and low rates of transition to English instruction prove that bilingual education is not effective.
Culturally and linguistically diverse students seek to study in their native language. The so-called heritage language use in bilingual education programs is funded by federal grants to schools where the minority populations are high. According to Yan (2003), bilingual education is the most effective instructional model to help culturally and linguistically diverse students with school success. Nevertheless, since the implementation of bilingual education, researchers, educators, school leaders, and practitioners are confused about bilingual models. It is common to see culturally and linguistically diverse parents send their children to special language schools for heritage language learning. In addition, parents are increasingly involved in the debate on bilingual education.
Needs of Immigrant Children
The increasing number of immigrant students in public schools suggests that there should be an effective strategy to meet their educational needs. According to statistics, 20 percent of school-aged children in the United States are children of recent immigrants (Johns, 2001). In 1994, for example, immigrant students represented approximately 30 percent of total enrollment in the country. The research proves that immigrant students are very likely to have low academic achievement due to limited language proficiency. The study of high school dropouts, in particular, revealed that immigration is a contributing factor to the dropout rate among Hispanic students. “Large numbers of limited English proficient children continue to receive instruction that is substandard to what English speakers receive” (Johns, 2001, p. 268). Thus, the needs of immigrant students are not adequately met.
The challenge is to find an effective way to meet the need for the education of immigrant children. It is not acceptable to allow immigrants to become underachievers or to drop out in unacceptable. Poor academic performance results in a loss of human potential and poor economic growth. Improving the education of high-risk children is one of the most important tasks facing the American nation. The task is not easy as the curriculum developed for immigrant students must take into account the social and cultural environments of their native countries and they can be very different from American ones. As the result, immigrant children may become marginalized in the education system.
California has a long history of linguistic diversity and debate on the education of immigrant students who come to public schools speaking a language other than English. “Although there are varying arguments about how English-language learners can best learn to speak, read, and write English, proponents of bilingual education have long stressed that the use of primary language instruction facilitates second-language acquisition” (Montano et al, 2005, p. 103). In particular, studies in California demonstrate that bilingual education has a positive effect on successful academic achievement for English-limited-proficiency students. Immigrant students account for one-quarter of all public school population in the State; however, between 1998 and 2001 bilingual education has declined by more than 50 percent.
One of the reasons why bilingual education fails is an evident lack of fully certified bilingual teachers who can provide quality instruction in two languages. “Schools of education typically prepare their prospective teachers to work with some amorphous average student – who is by implication middle class, native-English speaking, and White” (Commins & Miramontes, 2006, p. 240). Teachers are given limited opportunities to adjust their teaching practices to students with diverging profiles: children coming from poverty, students of color, and second language learners. Before implemented effective bilingual education, initial teacher education should be based on understanding that diversity of language, culture, and class must be addressed.
Pros of Bilingual Education
Bilingual education has three benefits: 1) it gives children representing cultural and ethnic minorities get education in a language they understand the most – their native language; 2) bilingual education empowers immigrant children to gain fundamental English language skills without compromising the quality of their knowledge and 3) bilingual education is the first step towards recognizing cultural diversity in the United States of America.
The first benefit of bilingual education is related to the opportunity granted to children to gain knowledge of basic disciplines in their native language. For example, a child who knows Spanish better than English may find it more convenient to study Math in Spanish because it is understood better. If Math is taught in English, Spanish-speaking children may not be able to gain even a basic understanding of the subject. Undoubtedly, it will have a significant negative impact on the future life of a child as a lack of fundamental knowledge will deprive the child of the opportunity to advance knowledge. Thus, bilingual education is a tool to overcome language barriers in education.
The second benefit of bilingual education is the empowerment it offers to immigrant children in terms of English language learning. Bilingual education helps immigrant children to learn the English language without compromising the quality of their knowledge. In particular, a student learns key subjects in his/her native language while advancing the knowledge of English. Unlike the English-only curriculum, bilingual education fosters learning as children representing diverse cultures are given a chance to get high-quality education.
Finally, bilingual education is a tool to promote diversity in the country. The United States of America is the most culturally and ethnically diverse country in the world and children of American citizens and immigrants should be allowed to study in the language they understand the most. Thus, bilingual education is a recognition of cultural and ethnic diversity, a unique characteristic of the American nation.
Cons of Bilingual Education
Despite the evident benefits of bilingual education for children of immigrants, it is important to outline a number of drawbacks. In particular, bilingual education as currently provided is of poor quality because there is a lack of professional training for educators. In other words, there are no experienced and educated bilingual teachers. As the result, bilingual students do not get high-quality education because teachers are not experienced or trained enough. In addition, there is an insufficient number of textbooks, if any, created for bilingual instruction.
Secondly, bilingual education may lead to a situation when immigrant children gain primary knowledge in basic disciplines but are not motivated to study further. Lack of motivation can be a result of inexperienced teachers and a lack of textbooks. The final argument against bilingual education is associated with the inherent values of American society: the United States of America is home to millions of bilingual people; however, English was, is, and will be the national language of business and social interactions. Bilingual education fails to prepare children of immigrants to become full members of society.
Undoubtedly, the pros and cons of bilingual education are a matter of personal choice and opinion. While one student will seek more and more knowledge in any institutional setting, another one will not study even when the most favorable environment is created. From one side, it is important to give every child an opportunity to study. On the other side, there is a lack of bilingual educators.
There is no evidence to support the claim that bilingual education is more effective than English immersion of English-only instruction. The research suggests that bilingual education may have some positive impact on immigrant children as it allows them to acquire knowledge in the language they understand the best. Moreover, English is the official language of the United States of America and citizens should possess solid knowledge of it. Nevertheless, proponents of bilingual education argue that it makes immigrant students unprepared for employment as fluent knowledge of English is the primary requirement. The controversy of bilingual education is likely to remain a hot topic in the nearest future as neither side provides solid arguments.
The arguments of opponents as well as advocates of bilingual education seem to be reasonable. It makes sense to insist that children who cannot speak English should continue their education in a language they understand while simultaneously learning English. However, it is equally reasonable to expect that bilingual education is an attempt to defer English-language instruction. Immigrant children may adapt better to school if its culture is not in conflict with their background. In addition, some parents are more intent on preserving native culture for their children. They believe that bilingual education is an effective tool to meet the needs of their children.
The results of the research are mixed as it is difficult to control or at least take into account diverse background factors affecting academic achievements. It is a fact that immigrant children are more likely to drop out and have academic underachievement but the causes are not clear. Bilingual advocates argue that children advance further in both English language and academic subjects when native-language instruction is used. On the other side, bilingual education may result in a situation when immigrant children are not able to transfer their knowledge gained in their native language to an English-focused American society.
- Commins, N. & Miramontes, O. (2006). Addressing Linguistic Diversity from the Outset. Journal of Teacher Education, 57 (3), 240+.
- Crawford, J. (1998). Language Politics in the U.S.A.: The Paradox of Bilingual Education. Social Justice, 25 (3), 50+
- Johns, S. (2001). Using the Comer Model to Educate Immigrant Children. Childhood Education, 77 (5), 268
- Montano, T., Ulanoff, S. & Sarellana, R. (2005). he DEbilingualization of California’s Prospective Bilingual Teachers. Social Justice, 32 (3), 103+
- Rothstein, R. (1998). Bilingual Education: The Controversy. Phi Delta Kappan, 79 (9), 672+
- Yan, R. (2003). Parental Perceptions on Maintaining Heritage Languages of CLD Students. Bilingual Review, 27 (2), 99+