Los Angeles Times
Sunday, October 19, 1997
PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION
Bilingual Is a Damaging Myth
A system that ensures failure is kept alive by the flow of federal
dollars. A 1998 initiative would bring change.
By RON K. UNZ
As each new microchip and fiber-optic cable shrinks the circumference
of our world, more and more Americans recognize the practical importance
of bilingualism. Even today, entrepreneurs or employees fluent in Chinese,
Japanese or Spanish have a distinct edge over their English-only peers.
But if other languages such as Chinese or
Spanish are of growing world importance, English ranks in a class by itself.
Although English is not and never has been America's official national
language, over the past 20 years it has rapidly become the entire world's
unofficial language, utterly dominating the spheres of science, technology
and international business. Fluency in Spanish may provide a significant
advantage, but lack of literacy in English represents a crippling, almost
fatal disadvantage in our global economy. For this reason, the better public
and private schools in Europe, Asia and Latin America all provide as much
English as early as possible to young children.
During this same period, many of America's
own public schools have stopped teaching English to young children from
non-English-speaking backgrounds. Influenced by avant-garde pedagogy and
multiculturalist ideology, educational administrators have adopted a system
of bilingual education that is usually "bilingual" in name only.
Too often, young immigrant children are taught
little or no English--in Los Angeles, only 30 minutes a day, according
to the school district's longstanding bilingual master plan. This is based
on the ridiculous notion that too much English too early will damage a
child's self-esteem and learning ability. Hundreds of thousands of these
American schoolchildren spend years being taught grammar, reading, writing
and all other academic subjects in their own "native" language--almost
always Spanish--while receiving just tiny doses of instruction in English,
taught as a foreign language.
As one might expect, the results of such
an approach to English instruction are utterly dismal. Of the 1.3 million
California schoolchildren--a quarter of our state's total public school
enrollment--who begin each year classified as not knowing English, only
about 5% learn English by year's end, implying an annual failure rate of
95% for existing programs.
Defenders of the status quo argue away these
devastating statistics by claiming that 5-year-old children normally require
about seven years to learn a new language and actually have much more difficulty
learning second languages than teenagers or adults; these are academic
dogmas with absolutely no basis in reality.
On the other hand, the dreadful flaws in
the current classification methodology are kept well hidden. In California,
children from immigrant or Latino backgrounds are categorized as not knowing
English if they merely score below average on English tests, meaning that
unknown numbers of children whose first and only language is English spend
their elementary school years trapped in Spanish-only "bilingual"
The real dynamic driving this bizarre system
is special government funding. School districts are provided with extra
dollars for each child who doesn't know English. This generates the worst
sort of perverse incentive, in which administrators are financially rewarded
for not teaching English to young children or pretending that they haven't
learned the language; schools are annually penalized for each child who
becomes fluent in English.
Under such a scheme, the widespread educational
fiction that young children require seven years to learn English suddenly
becomes understandable, as a necessary, enabling myth. And although no
one has been able to properly document the total amount of supplemental
spending on children limited in English, the annual total for California
certainly exceeds $400 million and may be as much as $1 billion or more,
sums that can buy a tremendous amount of silence or complicity.
Unfortunately for its profiteers, "bilingual
education" is completely unworkable as well as unsuccessful. Even
after 20 or 30 years of effort, California has had absolutely no luck in
finding the enormous supply of properly certified bilingual teachers to
match the 140 languages spoken by California schoolchildren. All sides
in the debate agree that the old-fashioned "sink or swim" method
of learning English is the worst alternative, yet more California schoolchildren
today are submerged into this approach than are in properly structured
bilingual programs, although courts have ruled the former unconstitutional
and the latter legally mandatory. "Bilingual or nothing" in practice
often means "nothing."
These facts may only now be coming to the
attention of California's affluent white elite, but they have long been
well-known to the current system's primary victims, powerless Latino immigrants
and their children. Over recent years, there have been a series of spontaneous
protests against "bilingual education" by angry parents, most
notably the 1996 Latino boycott at Los Angeles' 9th Street Elementary School,
which directly inspired our "English for the Children" initiative
The initiative, targeted for next June's
ballot, would end bilingual education in California by making it truly
voluntary. Parents could still have their children placed or kept in a
bilingual program, but only if they took the affirmative step of seeking
a waiver. Since public opinion surveys, including a recent Los Angeles
Times poll, have consistently shown 80% to 85% dislike for the current
program among its supposed beneficiaries, voluntary bilingual programs
will become very few and far between. And those programs that do survive
our initiative by attracting genuine parental support are probably worth
preserving. In a state as large and diverse as California, even the most
unlikely program may occasionally succeed due to specific local conditions
or unique individuals.
But either way, all of California's immigrant
schoolchildren finally will be granted the right to be taught English,
the universal language of advancement and opportunity, supplementing their
own family languages. Only by ending our failed system of bilingual education
can we foster the true growth of bilingualism and the unity and prosperity
of our multiethnic society.
Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, is the chairman
of the "English for the Children" initiative campaign. In 1994,
he challenged incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson for the Republican nomination.