Evidence Suggesting That Public Opinion Is Becoming More Negative: A Discussion of the Reasons, and What We Can Do About It

by Stephen Krashen
University of Southern California 

Some Negative Polls
Two recent polls appear to show little support for bilingual education.

The Chicago Tribune (September 4, 2001) reported that residents of six suburbs of Chicago opposed bilingual education by wide margins. The question asked was: "Should English be the only language used in school classrooms, or should immigrant children be able to take some classes in their native language?" According to the Tribune, the sample consisted of about 1200 heads of households and was done by the Market Shares Corporation of Mount Prospect. Sixty-one percent of the respondents felt that only English should be used, only 6 percent were undecided, and 33 percent were in favor of some classes being done in the native language. 

The National Parenting Association (Charney and Gumbiner, 2001) asked 650 residents of New York State the following question: Do you think non-English speaking children should receive intensive instruction in English or should they be taught in English and their native language? For the entire sample, 58 percent were in favor of intensive English, only 7 percent were undecided, and 36 percent favored bilingual education. For those who lived in New York City, results were very similar, with 58 percent in favor of intensive English, 9 percent undecided, and 34 percent in favor of bilingual education.

The questions used in the two surveys are similar, and the results are very close. Not only are the results strongly negative, but it is noteworthy that so few subjects had no opinion or were undecided. It should also be pointed out that these questions do not suffer from some of the bias problems seen in other polls (Krashen, 1999). They did not simply ask if children should have “intensive English” without presenting an alternative, did not presuppose that bilingual education provides instruction only in the native language, and did not presuppose that bilingual education requires the delay of English.

A Change in Public Opinion?
All previous polls that have asked about bilingual education in an unbiased way have shown considerable support for bilingual education. Considering only polls of randomly selected voters, polls done in the 1980s and 1990s show either a fairly even split, with about half of the respondents approving of bilingual education (e.g., Gallup Poll 20, 1988; Huddy and Sears, 1990; Cain and Kiewiet, 1987), or clear support for bilingual education, with about two-thirds approving it (the Houston Survey, 1983). Of those interviewed by the Dallas News and the Los Angeles Times, in very similar polls done in 1998, only one-third said they preferred English-only, while about one-third agreed that the first language could be used as long as parents and teachers thought it was a good idea, and another one-third would allow the first language to be used for a year or two. (All poll results cited here are summarized in Krashen, 1999.) 

What we may be seeing in recent years is a shift of about one-third of the public from mild support (those who would allow one or two years of bilingual education in the Dallas and Los Angeles polls) to the all-English position, with only about 33 percent of the public remaining solid supporters of bilingual education.

Why did this shift take place? There are two possibilities:

1. The groups sampled tended to be conservative. There is evidence both supporting and denying this for the Chicago sample. Forty-seven percent of the same respondents said they were in favor of reducing immigration, and 56 percent were opposed to granting legal residency to illegal immigrants. But about 70 percent said they believed minorities would be accepted if they moved to their neighborhoods. Also, the New York sample was randomly selected, questions could be asked in either English or Spanish, and the New York City subsample gave results nearly identical to those of the state sample.

2. The impact of Propositions 227 (California) and 203 (Arizona), as well as current anti-bilingual education movements in other states. I think this is a more plausible reason for the negative results.  Bilingual education has received a tremendous amount of publicity in the media over the last few years because of ballot initiatives, and nearly all of the publicity has been negative. 

Even before Propositions 227 and 203, bilingual education did not fare well in the media, with most articles presenting a negative view of bilingual education and with few articles covering the research (McQuillan and Tse, 1996). 

It is clear that things have gotten even worse.  Media reports have repeated the unsubstantiated claims of critics that children in bilingual education programs do not learn English very well, and have not balanced these claims with the results of scientific studies that consistently show that bilingual education has been quite effective in helping children acquire English: Children in bilingual programs have been shown to acquire as much English as comparison children in all English programs, and usually more  (e.g., Greene, 1999). 

Perhaps even more damaging were the many articles repeating claims of supporters of Proposition 227 that it deserved the credit for increased test scores in California, with no consideration of other interpretations (Thompson, DiCerbo, Mahoney, and MacSwan, 2002). There was no mention of the fact that test scores went up for students still in bilingual education in California (because of special waivers). There was also no mention of the fact that inflation of test scores is typical and expected when a new test is introduced; when the same test is repeated for four years in a row; when there is a great deal of effort devoted to test preparation; and when there are severe punishments for declining scores and rewards for improved scores.

In fact, it is not clear to many voters that English is even a goal of bilingual programs. In their article, the Chicago Tribune interviewed several of those polled and it was clear that they voted against bilingual education because they felt that children should learn English. Respondent John Sunde told the Tribune that diversity is a great thing as long as we remember that “English is the major language.” Sunde also told the Tribune that he is frustrated when he goes to a store and cannot communicate with an employee in English.

Voters like Sunde are right: English is very important, and those who live in the U.S. need to acquire it. Sunde was not aware, however, that bilingual education has been successful in helping children acquire English; in fact, it has been more successful than other programs. 

Allowing some classes in the native language can help English language development tremendously in two central ways: The first is by giving students valuable information, information that will help make the English they hear and read more comprehensible. English learners who have learned history very well in their own language will understand more history when they study it in English, which will speed their acquisition of English. The second way native language instruction helps is by building literacy in the first language, which provides a short cut to English literacy. It has been established that we learn to read by understanding what is on the page. It is much easier to understand what is on the page when you understand the language. It is therefore easier to learn to read in a language you already understand. Once you can read in one language, it is much easier to learn to read in any other; the ability to read transfers across languages. This has been confirmed in many studies that show that literacy transfers even when the writing systems are different.

The Tribune’s report only made the problem worse. The article did not comment on Mr. Sunde’s false impression that bilingual education was bad for English. It did not point out that research continues to support bilingual education as an effective means for acquiring English. This failure to note that bilingual education has been successful in teaching English is a strong message to readers that bilingual education is, in fact, not successful.

Needed: A Serious Campaign to Defend and Explain Bilingual Education
How can we explain this omission? Is it due to a stubborn disinformation campaign on the part of newspapers and other news media to deliberately destroy bilingual education? Or is it due to the failure of the profession to present its side of the story to reporters? There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence in support of the latter. Several reporters have told me that they receive frequent communications from the organizations opposing bilingual education, sometimes even more than one per day, and rarely receive anything from organizations that support bilingual education. 

In addition, if they consult the professional literature, reporters can easily get the impression that there is little support for bilingual education. While the opposition maintains a steady flow of articles and papers attacking bilingual education (see, e.g., Read Perspectives, a journal devoted entirely to attacks on bilingual education), there appears to be only modest interest within the profession of dealing with these attacks and presenting new evidence. For many writers and scholars, it appears to be business as usual.

Because of articles such as those in the Chicago Tribune, we can only expect public attitudes to become even more negative toward bilingual education in the future. This will, in turn, encourage even more attacks and initiatives and will insure their success. Without a serious, dedicated and organized campaign to explain and defend bilingual education at the national level, in a very short time we will have nothing left to defend.

Charney, C.and Gumbiner, J. 2001. What will parents vote for in New York? New York: National Parenting Association.
Greene, J. 1997. A Meta-analysis of the Rossell and Baker review of bilingual education research. Bilingual Research Journal, 21 (2, 3): 103-122.
Krashen, S. 1999. Condemned without a trial: Bogus arguments against bilingual education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Company.
McQuillan, J., & Tse, L. 1996. Does research really matter? An analysis of media opinion on bilingual education, 1984-1994. Bilingual Research Journal, 20 (1): 1-27.
Thompson, M., DiCerbo, K., Mahoney, K., and MacSwan, J. 2002. Exito in California? A validity critique of language program evaluations and analysis of English learner test scores. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10 (7).