When You Remember Bilingual Ed, Don't Forget Tony
'They are finally pulling the plug on bilingual ed," my friend and colleague said excitedly. An English instructor, he saw the elimination of bilingual education as boosting his efforts to teach writing. I told him it meant a return to the good old days of sink-and-swim.
I didn't have access to bilingual education when, at 16, I came to the US. I didn't sink. Although I knew few words of English, I did well in school, completing several college degrees and eventually a PhD.
My brother Tony, on the other hand, did sink. He was only 11 when we came to the United States and he always hated school, which made him feel stupid and worthless. He barely graduated from high school. That's a shame, because he is at least as intelligent as I am - although to this day I am sure he does not know it.
Like me, he did not have access to bilingual education. During those first crucial years in the new country, not only was he supposed to learn all the school subjects like every other American kid - math, geography, history, science, etc. - he also had to learn the tool that is indispensable to make it: the English language. Too much was thrown at him during his first two years of school, and he was left to his own resources. If he did not understand something, no one bothered to consider that his confusion was related to language.
My semiliterate parents, neither of whom spoke English, were not much help. If papers came home from school, they were ignored. If grades were not as good as his older brother's, they assumed it was his fault.
Would bilingual education have helped him? You bet. Had he been provided with a few years of instruction in Italian while he was learning English, he would not have fallen behind. His exposure to English might have been reduced and his acquisition of the language might have taken longer, but he would have had the chance to stay at grade level. His self-esteem would not have been shattered. Quite likely he would have gone on to college.
But wait a minute, you might be thinking. You succeeded without the extra help. Why couldn't he? The truth is, because of my age and experiences I had advantages my brother never had. When I started high school here, without knowing English, I already knew the subject matter of my classes. In Italy, I had finished the first two years of a highly selective and advanced high school. It included a curriculum so rigorous that in my freshman year only 6 out of a class of 30 made it into the sophomore year. The others failed. My preparation included the usual math, science, and Italian language, as well as three years of Latin and four of French.
In essence, I had completed the US high school curriculum when I arrived. All I had to learn was English. Ironically, the weakness of the American educational system worked to my advantage. Most limited-English speakers in US schools are like Tony. They are capable of learning and, with bilingual education, can succeed. Bilingual education recognizes that if content is difficult for American children who know English, it is twice as difficult for immigrant children who, in addition to content, must learn the new language. By teaching content in the students' native language, bilingual education gives students several years to learn English, after which they can move on to an English-only curriculum.
Bilingual education is not a panacea. It cannot guarantee success because recipients of bilingual education are at a disadvantage compared with native-born Americans. Bilingual education does not make up for poverty in immigrant families. It does not make up for non-English speaking parents' inability to help their children. Yet bilingual education gives immigrant children a chance to succeed. A chance my brother never had.
* Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif.