Against Bilingual Education Essay

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This article describes the history, theories and research of bilingual education practice and describes the most common program types currently utilized in K-12 public education. Bilingual Education is a term used to describe a wide variety of programs that utilize two languages to teach academic content. Some bilingual programs are designed to develop full bilingualism, or the ability to use two languages proficiently; others use the native language to facilitate the acquisition of English. The history of bilingual education is one characterized by controversy and wavering support for the use of two languages in public schools. Modern debates focus on whether demographic trends that are making the U.S. more diverse indicate the need for more or less native language support in the classroom. An important factor in deciding this question is whether bilingual programs are more effective than English Only programs in raising student academic achievement.

Keywords Bilingualism; Developmental Bilingual Education; Dual Language Immersion; English Language Learners; English Only; Linguistically Different Learners; Transitional Bilingual Education; Heritage Language; Sheltered Content Instruction


The education of "bilingual" students in the U.S. has always been closely tied to political, economic and social concerns. As a nation of immigrants, the U.S. was founded by colonists from multiple language backgrounds and nationalities. While early private schools were quickly established to teach colonial children, schools were generally segregated by communities so that students studied in their native languages (Brisk, 1998). As immigrant communities (mainly from Europe) vied for political and economic power in the new world, language and nationality differences raised tensions between neighbors. This in turn led to calls for new immigrants to assimilate by learning the language and customs of earlier arrivals. For example, in colonial Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin complained that an influx of German speaking immigrants would threaten the ability of the English in the settlement to maintain their language and government. He was so worried about this prospect that he established one of the first groups of English language schools for Germans with the hope of helping them to better assimilate into the English-speaking culture (Crawford, 1996).

Various waves of immigration throughout U.S. history have raised similar concerns and have often dovetailed with national political discussions about the role of education in building and maintaining a democracy, a pluralistic society or a skilled workforce. The result has been that local, state and federal education policies have frequently vacillated between supporting and opposing bilingual education. For instance, in the early to middle 19th century, many schools taught using two languages such as German-English schools in the Midwest or French-English schools in Louisiana. Yet beginning in the late 1880s and extending into the 20th century, many states enacted laws to require English to be the only language of instruction (Brisk, 1981, 1998). While wavering political support characterizes the history of bilingual education, the common thread in educating U.S. bilinguals has been that learning English has been deemed important. Thus, the definition of a bilingual program in the U.S. generally includes teaching English as one of the two languages of the curriculum.

The modern history of bilingual education begins in earnest in the 1960s. In the political climate of the times in which many women and African-Americans were advocating for equality and civil rights, linguistic minorities began to demand their right to preserve their languages and cultures as well as to receive quality English instruction that would guarantee them equal access to educational and economic opportunities. They argued that equality bilingual instruction could provide one means to this end (Brisk, 1981; 1998).

In response to these concerns, the Bilingual Education Act, formally called Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), was passed in 1968. This act provided for the education of students of "limited English speaking ability" (Wiese & Garcia, 1998, p. 1). Though the act did not prescribe a particular type of program to schools, it included bilingual education as an approved option for educating these students (Wiese & Garcia, 1998).

Also important in the movement to obtain educational equality for bilingual students was the Supreme Court Case Lau v. Nichols. In this landmark case, non-English speaking Chinese students sued the San Francisco Unified School District for not providing them with English language instruction. The Supreme Court ruled that under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all students have a right to equality in education, and non-English speaking students are not given an equal education just because they attend the same schools and use the same textbooks as native English speakers. Rather, the Court affirmed that English language learners (ELLs) need specialized instruction in English if they are to reap the benefits of their education (Lau, 1974). As a result of this case, the door was opened for the implementation of a wider variety of programs to serve bilingual students (Brisk, 1998; Wiese & Garcia, 1998).

Despite apparent gains for advocates of bilingual education, many vocal critics opposed the use of native languages in the classroom. In the 1980s and 1990s, organizations such as "English First" and "U.S. English" called for English to be a national language - and the only language of instruction in public schools - in order to preserve national unity ("English First"; "U.S. English," 2005). In 1997, Spanish immigrant parents in Los Angeles complained that their children were not learning English in bilingual programs (One Nation/One California, 1997). Learning of this issue, an independent activist named Ron Unz founded "English For The Children" and drafted the now famous California ballot initiative known as Proposition 227. This proposition, which passed in 1998 with 61% of the vote, required that English be the only language of instruction in California's schools, effectively eliminating bilingual education as an option for most students. The success of the measure led "English For The Children" to sponsor similar initiatives on several state ballots with varying degrees of success. Along with these setbacks for bilingual education, federal legislation during this time also shifted away from only supporting bilingual education to accepting English Only instruction (Wiese & Garcia, 1998).

Bilingual education remains controversial. With new research showing the cognitive benefits of obtaining bilingualism (Bialystok, 2005), an increasingly global society offering greater economic opportunities for those who can speak more than one language, and the U.S. population becoming more diverse, supporters of bilingual education say that their programs are the best choice for meeting the needs of the population today and in the future (Krashen, 2007; "Research Section," 2007; Thomas & Collier, 2002). On the other hand, English Only advocates continue to be active. They look at U.S. Census Bureau reports showing that there are 322 languages spoken in the United States, and they say what is needed is a common language for communication among peoples. They say that when governments provide multilingual services, they send the message to immigrants that one does not need to learn English in order to live in the U.S. Since they believe this is wrong, they argue that multilingual services - including bilingual education - should be replaced by English Only programs that emphasize the fastest acquisition of English as possible (U.S. English, 2005). It is likely that given demographic realities and conflicting political ideologies that the debate surrounding bilingual education will continue for at least the foreseeable future.


Program Models

By definition, bilingual education is education that teaches academic content using two languages. However, beyond this basic definition, there is considerable variety in how a bilingual program actually looks. Many differences exist because student populations are so diverse. Students not only come from many language backgrounds, but they differ in age, socioeconomic status, level of literacy and amount of formal education in their first language. They have experienced differing degrees of parental support and their own motivation to learn a new language varies. Programs also differ due to regional differences such as the total number of ELLs within the local educational system and the amount and quality of teacher training on linguistically different learners that teachers have had (Brisk, 1998; Genesee, 1999).

Although bilingual education programs are diverse, most programs share at least some basic tenets. These are that bilingual children should achieve academic proficiency to the same level or better than monolingual, native English speakers; that bilingual children need cross-cultural as well as linguistic training, and that both languages - the students' native language and the target language - have value in helping the child to learn (Brisk, 1998; Center for Equity & Excellence in Education, 1996; Genesee, 1999).

In identifying different models of bilingual education, an important characteristic is whether the school wants students to achieve full bilingualism or merely acquire the target language. To be fully bilingual, students must be able to read, write, speak and listen in both languages. Therefore, programs with this goal tend to be longer term...

In September 2015, members of the Pennsylvania Legislature issued an “English Only” legislation, Bill 1506. Currently, 31 US states have similar legislation. The bill would require all state and local government business to be conducted in English. Some are against this bill, like opinion writer Charlie Deitch who says “It’s hard to make meaningful gains in government when most of the time is spent parsing crap legislation meant to appease the citizenry sitting with closed minds.” As a child, I was born into a bilingual home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both my parents were born in Nicaragua, a multilingual but predominantly Spanish speaking country. My mother grew up in the United States and does not speak fluent Spanish. Her parents spoke Spanish but did not teach their children. My father lived in Nicaragua until he was 27;  he speaks Miskito, Creole English and Spanish. As a child, I primarily learned one language, English. My mother would say a few words in Spanish. My father prefered Creole English and Miskito to Spanish.  Then, when I was five years old, I was enrolled at Independence Charter School, a school with a bilingual program so I would become fluent in Spanish. Some members of the  Pennsylvania Legislature apparently fear multilingualism and multiculturalism. My story should alleviate their fears.

From kindergarten through fifth grade, I spent 80 - 90% of my school day learning in Spanish. Besides Spanish Language Arts, math, science and social studies were in Spanish. I had one period a day of English. For example, I learned the world's’ countries in Spanish. I never knew Switzerland, England or Belgium. I knew them as Suiza, Inglaterra and Bélgica. Math operations were la adición, división, multiplicación, and resta or subtracción. Classes had a “Spanish only rule.” You couldn’t speak English in classes;  if we have something to say, it had to be in Spanish. What I learned in Spanish in third grade, SLA students learn in Spanish II.

Despite the challenge of learning in a second language, I enjoyed learning in Spanish.  Most of my teachers were Latina and born in Spanish speaking countries. They spoke Spanish from birth. I learned proper pronunciation. In addition, they exposed us to their cultural traditions. This helped me embrace my heritage. Because of my physical appearance, especially my freckles, most people assume I am only white. But when I learned Spanish, I gained the confidence to embrace and love my complex heritage.

When I started middle school, the language demands increased. Now, math and science were in English. Only Spanish Language Arts and social studies were in Spanish. It was difficult and frustrating to shift and learn new information in English.  I had to learn more new vocabulary in a month than I had in five years. I almost lost five years of Spanish to a month of confusion. I wasn’t alone; many of us found learning math and science in English challenging. I learned to say “integers and acute” instead of “agudo y enteros”  and “DNA and ecosystem” instead of “ADN  y ecosistema.” In addition, my ADHD made it difficult to focus. There was also enormous pressure to have high grades and test scores to get into a magnet high school.

Nevertheless, while being bilingual has its perks, it made the infamous PSSA’s, extremely stressful.  The PSSA’s are the standardized test in Pennsylvania; high test scores are required to enroll into a favorable high school. The tests are in English. The teachers couldn’t help me during the test. No definition of terms. No explanation of a math  concept I had learned in Spanish but could not explain in English. The only thing my teacher could say was “try your best!” This response instilled more fear. This is when I realized my education was partially flawed.

A bilingual education made standardized testing very stressful because I was not fully prepared in English but there were significant benefits. Since entering high school, I have become a more confident student. Many of my peers from the immersion or bilingual program are succeeding in quality schools. My complicated heritage and bilingualism have made me a more insightful and creative student, rather than a textbook student. I believe I have the skills and drive to succeed.

While bilingualism assists my learning in school and is a bridge with my family, there are many other benefits to being bilingual. Being bilingual is a skill that will always be in demand in the work force. I learned from teachers, parents and extended family who see and experience life through many different lens.  Whether the Pennsylvania Legislators who support “English only” like it or not, by 2050 less than half of the United States will be of European descent.

Apparently, some members of the Pennsylvania legislature want to deny Pennsylvanians who either do not speak English or prefer another language second class citizenship. Many other countries encourage bilingualism or multilingualism, far too many people in the U.S. fear bilingualism and want to legislate against it. The bill has reached some support. The bill's’ authors suggests “Bill 1506 is meant to bring the country together under one language.” The bill will do nothing but hold our language skills back. But Although learning in school in my second language was often challenging, I am better student and citizen because of it.  

My bilingual education gave me real world skills to work skills. I had cultural experiences that I would not have had in a monolingual school.  My language skills have given me opportunities that I now appreciate.  A bilingual education is a privilege, not a burden. The proposed “English Only” bill in the Pennsylvania Legislature is grounded in fear and narrow nationalism.  Rather than limit our learning, the Pennsylvania Legislature should encourage bilingualism and cross cultural experiences. Learning in two languages may take a toll on a young learner but the benefits outweigh the initial burden. Rather than promoting “English Only,” the Pennsylvania Legislature should be funding multilingual public education and expanding opportunities for cultural exchange.


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