The education debate; Bilingualism is not the way

Of all the major educational issues confronting the American people, perhaps none is as contentious as that of bilingual education. Thousands of school-age children receive instruction in public schools primarily in their native language. Given the fact that public schools are now called upon to teach huge numbers of children from minority backgrounds, the bilingual approach is not surprising. In Texas alone, minorities make up close to half of the school-age population. About two-thirds of that group are Hispanic. Many of those children speak only Spanish. In California, minorities comprise two-fifths of the school children. Again, many children can communicate only in their native language.

The motive for bilingualism, of course, is well-intentioned: namely, to ensure that the children have access to an appropriate and comprehensive education in the only language they understand, until such time as they acquire skills in English.

Unfortunately, good intention does not necessarily promote sound public policy.

There is strong evidence that bilingualism is short-changing the long-range educational and social needs of the children and unduly burdening financially strapped school systems. Worst of all, a sentimental embracing of multiculturalism may be working against the assimilation so necessary to ensure that the United States remains a unified nation.

The better educational approach, it seems to us, is that recommended by the Twentieth Century Fund's task force on federal elementary and secondary education policy. The report stresses the importance of literacy in English as an overriding educational objective. It would achieve this through a preliminary program of total immersion in English language courses followed by a ''catch up'' period in courses such as mathematics, science, history, etc., which may have been neglected during the immersion process. This is the reverse of current practice.

Immersion in English - and moving away from bilingualism - makes sense. The issue is not one of denying children necessary instruction in their home language and culture. During a transition period teachers must be patient and not equate unfamiliarity with English with stupidity. And each school system should work out a program of immersion based on its particular circumstances - the children involved, which language they speak, their grade level, and so on. But the primary goal should be fluency in English.

To reject such an approach means continuing to subject school systems to impossible demands in finding foreign language instructors (as many as 56,000 would be needed for bilingual programs around the US, according to the Department of Education). Also, even if schools accommodate a use of languages other than English, this merely postpones the reality of the larger society, which does not.

The United States has always been a nation of many peoples, whose languages and cultures are respected. But English is the official and functional language of the United States. Its official records, its laws, its public discourse, its commerce have under almost all circumstances been conducted in English. It is that very commonality provided by the English language that has helped to give unity, shape, and direction to such a diverse society. At a time when young people need to know far more than the mere rudiments of good English just to obtain jobs in an increasingly sophisticated technological society, this would hardly seem to be the moment to create an educational system that downplays, minimizes, or even ignores English.

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