Bilingual education: a vital step in mastering English

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BILINGUAL education, critics allege, will eventually cause a separatist society; is kept in place by ethnic (the code word for Latino or Hispanic) politicians and educators; is an educational method that has little to recommend it and should be scrapped in favor of English immersion programs. When I started the first grade (in the early 1950s), knowing about two or three words of English, school administrators placed me in what used to be called a class for the mentally retarded. Now, a PhD and two postdoctoral awards later, I am indebted to my parents, who sacrificed to arrange part-time tutoring during summer vacation, enabling me to catch up with my peers.

Other Spanish-speakers in school were not so fortunate. As one who was taught English by immersion -- the sink or swim method -- I feel in a position to offer a perspective on why so many in the Latino community support bilingual education.

Bilingual education, as legislated in Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is aimed at reaching youngsters whose primary language is not English. By receiving instruction in the language used in the home, the authors reasoned, children could make the transition into English-speaking more easily.

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Given Title VII's clear goal, to help students make the transition to English, why do so many opponents of bilingual education make assertions about the need to ward off the threatening ``rise'' of a second language? (This implies that bilingual education has nothing to do with learning English and everything to do with promoting a foreign language.)

The answer lies partly in semantics. ``Bilingual,'' in the context of education, refers to a method of instruction in which the home language is used to facilitate a student's transition to an all-English learning environment. In its more common usage, however, ``bilingual'' means dual language mastery. Critics of bilingual education perhaps are responding not to the educational method but to this latter meaning.

Those who find the temporary, or transitional, use of a non-English language unacceptable regard the second language as an attack on American culture. If their forefathers had to lose their native languages to prove themselves Americans, they reason, why can't others do the same?

Yet the ethnic group most closely associated with bilingual education, Hispanics, has a 300-year history in this country and has proven its patriotism.

The Hispanic community recognizes that the purpose of bilingual education is to move children into English-speaking classes and not to promulgate Spanish. After all, higher education opportunities, meaningful jobs, and overall success in this society are dependent on mastery of the English language.

The reason bilingual education is supported by Hispanic politicians and others is that they know the traditional system of teaching English in this country has failed many students. While some learned, many others found the obstacles too great and fell behind. Several lawsuits were even initiated by civil rights organizations in the 1960s to stop school districts from placing non-English-speaking children in classes for the learning handicapped on the basis of English-only intelligence tests. Now this s ame system of immersion is being praised by some as the way children should be taught English.

Critics cite unofficial Department of Education reports purporting that bilingual education is not effective. This is not the case. For example, in a Los Angeles public elementary school, an innovative bilingual program has raised children's reading scores to exceed the district average. By teaching Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students the academic subjects separately in their primary languages, (with English instruction included in the academic program of Spanish-speaking students), this prog ram has enabled students to keep up in their academics and learn English faster, with the aid of fewer bilingual instructors.

Because we still have much to learn about bilingual education, the Department of Education has authorized a five-year, multimillion-dollar study to evaluate methods of instruction for language minority children. When this evaluation is completed, if it is left free of ideological taint, we may learn that the bilingual method may not be effective in all cases.

Until then, I can only recall my own bewilderment when I first started school. My case was not unique. In Texas during the 1940s and 1950s, for example, there were two first grades: low first for Hispanic children and high first for English-speaking children. Upon graduating from low first, Hispanic children would enter -- not the second grade -- but high first. Thus, these children were automatically one year behind their peers.

Surely the detractors of bilingual education do not wish to return to a system in which non-English-speaking children are denied equal educational opportunities. By cutting out bilingual education, many school districts -- facing limited resources and fiscal constraints -- will immerse their language minority children into all English-speaking classes.

Supporting bilingual education may not be the most popular position but, for many, there's a deep-felt conviction that bilingual education is a great deal better than the alternatives -- which may be nothing at all.

Dr. Harry P. Pachon, associate professor of public administration at City University of New York, is executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

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