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Esther Cepeda: The downside of bilingualism

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Esther J. Cepeda
November 9, 2013

CHICAGO -- Activist and educator Matthew Lynch recently asked if language barriers are the “new segregation.” He challenged readers of an Education Week blog to consider if it is “fair to separate our student populations based on their native language.”

 He continued, “Just as the ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education found that ‘separate is … unequal’ when it comes to skin color—is the same true of language preferences?”

 Yes, separate classrooms for speakers of native languages other than English are egregiously unequal and not fair.

 Lynch was referring to a contentious case in Elgin, Ill., where the school district—40 percent Hispanic—runs a gifted program in which only 2 percent of the students are Hispanic. The district has a separate gifted program for Hispanic students learning English as a second language.

 This is in line with the mindset of countless educators who believe, incorrectly, that children who are not native English-speakers need the special accommodation of being immersed in their native language in order to learn.

 Vanderbilt University professor Donna Ford said, “Even unintentional discrimination closes the door for gifted minority students. Even if you don’t mean to discriminate, that is not an excuse to keep doing business as usual.”

 But herding students learning English into classes that are taught exclusively in their native language is business as usual in many school districts. In fact, many defenders of Hispanic culture believe it is the only way to educate kids who are not native English-speakers.

 Separate classes, separate teachers and sometimes separate curriculums—often lower-level than those of the native English-speakers in a given grade—are common in typical “bilingual” programs.

 I was a bilingual teacher in Illinois, a state that requires most Spanish-speakers to get at least partial instruction in their native language. But Spanish-only tended to be the norm, and I often angered my peers for teaching in two languages instead of just in Spanish.

 In the schools where I taught, the bilingual education program was a revolving door of under-qualified instructors on special temporary teaching certificates who often did not have undergraduate degrees in the subjects they taught.

 This didn’t always matter. My students were in tracks where language was traditionally taught with elementary school-level worksheets and the upper-class Algebra 2 students were expected to work and test from the district’s 8th-grade math basics book.

 Some Spanish-speaking students who were capable of performing well in mainstream classes were nevertheless put in bilingual programs or persuaded to join them—numbers had to be kept up to run the sheltered instruction classes, which get extra operating funds from state and federal governments.

 Not so for Polish, Korean, Filipino and other English-language learners who came into the district. Their small numbers usually didn’t trigger opening a “self-contained” classroom catering to their native language. They were instead expected to sink or swim in mainstream classes, and almost invariably succeeded.

 Kids are like that—except for special cases—they soak up new languages easily.

 Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Unified School District seems to think its English-language learners are unadaptable. To boost their achievement, it plans to separate elementary school students who are not fluent in English from native English-speakers in all core classes.

 Supporters of the move say the students’ track record of low achievement proves that their long-standing integration hasn’t worked. Opponents of the scheme cite research suggesting that students have a better shot at learning English if they are placed with English-speaking peers.

 I agree, but with the caveat of excellent instruction.

 The very best English-language acquisition programs are those featuring dual language instruction where kids are fully immersed in classrooms that alternate use of languages and are headed by highly skilled teachers. Students learn two languages quickly and deftly.

 For example, in Alamo Heights, Texas, two middle-school students—one Anglo and one Hispanic—in the school district’s dual-language immersion program competed Saturday for the top title in their region’s first-ever Spanish spelling bee.

 They didn’t get there due to luck or unusual ability. They were simply immersed in their target language and given appropriate supports and great teachers.

 If all English learners had these three luxuries, we certainly wouldn’t accept segregating them into educational communities practically designed to keep them dependent on their native tongue.

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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