Bye-Bye, Bilingual

Friday, July 30, 1999

Bilingual education has failed to achieve its original objective of teaching children English. Objective analysis shows that bilingual education is ineffective, keeps students too long in Spanish-only classes, and slows the learning of English and assimilation into American society. It has undermined the future of the Latino children it was meant to help and has created a sense of victimization among young Latino students. The guiding principle of bilingualism is “cultural maintenance,” and some enthusiasts want Spanish to be a second national language. Yet the evidence is clear that Latinos taught in bilingual programs test behind peers taught in English-only classrooms and earn less money after they leave school.

The demands of the global, high-tech workplace require that our citizens have a firm command of English. English is rapidly becoming the world’s lingua franca; it is estimated that one-third of mankind speaks or understands some English. Indeed, it is already the most widely used language in history. It is the language of science, technology, diplomacy, international trade, and commerce. Immigrants line up to learn English because they believe that learning the language will improve their prospects—and it does, significantly.

Latino parents have complained bitterly for some time that all day long their children are exposed to Spanish in school and only for a few minutes to English. Efforts to get their children transferred are resisted. “We know best,” the teacher or principal says. In some cases, it has taken a year to remove a child from bilingual education even if the child speaks no Spanish.

Why is bilingual education able to continue this way, against the wishes of many parents and its almost total failure in most schools in the United States?

Bilingual education began decades ago as an effort to help immigrants, mostly Spanish speakers, learn English. It has since become “a multimillion-dollar hog trough that feeds arrogant education bureaucrats and militant Hispanic separatists,” according to journalist Glen Garvin.

Misunderstandings abound over bilingual education: It is not about learning and speaking two languages at the same time. The ideal was transitional bilingual education (TBE), in which most of the instruction was in the students’ native languages while they learned English. This way they would not fall behind in academic courses. But TBE fell victim to theorists of language education—“facilitation theorists”—who claim that children cannot learn a second language until they are fully literate in their first. This process supposedly takes six or seven years, during which the students are supposed to be taught their native language. Slowly, English is worked into the curriculum until the “threshold” is crossed, and then the student can go into English classes. In other words, children are able to learn English by being taught in Spanish. As the principal of a Los Angeles school said, “Loco, completamente loco.”

TBE has been a failure; it has kept many students too long in the program and has retarded students’ ability in either Spanish or English. Immersion programs do much better—80 percent who enter in kindergarten are mainstreamed after three years, whereas only 22 percent in TBE are moved out of the program after the second grade.

Even though poll after poll in Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio, Miami, and New York shows that parents want children taught in English, not Spanish, activists keep insisting on bilingualism, as do academic supporters of bilingualism. The debate has overtones of ethnic politics; it is about Latino power and culture, about ethnic pride, about so-called victimhood and preferential treatment through affirmative action. Money and grants are involved, and to trigger funds a minimum number of students is required. There is a huge bureaucracy of administrators, bilingual teachers, psychologists, and textbook publishers at the funding trough. In California, 1.3 million students attend bilingual classes at a cost of more than $300 million a year.

The most impressive opposition to date has been the ballot initiative in California—“English for the Children”—which was passed in June 1998 by a 60 to 40 percent vote. The initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, called for stopping the teaching of non-English-speaking children in their mother tongue, unless their parents request it. Instead a year of “sheltered English immersion” is to be required before placing them in English-only classrooms. The initiative also mandated $50 million a year for ten years for adult literacy programs. The Unz group has been careful to spell out that “English for the Children” will not throw children with limited English proficiency into regular classes, where they would have to “sink or swim,” or cut special funding for children learning English, or bar all “bilingual education programs.” The Unz initiative should be a model for states with large non-English-speaking populations.

Most Latino parents prefer their children to learn English as soon as possible. They believe, correctly, that English literacy is the key to success in the United States. Most students in bilingual programs never really learn to read or write English very well, and Spanish speakers leave school at the highest rate of any ethnic group. Bilingual education also defeats efforts to assimilate children into U.S. society and keeps Spanish speakers from getting better-paying jobs.

The solution that Unz and others insist on: one year of sheltered English immersion, then placement in regular classrooms. Most people seem to agree—except bilingual teachers, administrators, and multiculturalists who want not only language training but cultural maintenance or, in other words, little Quebecs in states like California, New York, Texas, and Florida.