Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, December 17, 1997

A Bilingual Helping Hand
Education: Many children get no help learning English outside school.

Bilingual education advocates have a tough fight ahead. Jaime Escalante, renegade math teacher made famous in the movie "Stand and Deliver," recently announced his backing of Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz's ballot initiative to ban bilingual education in California. Like Escalante, some of the most vocal opponents of these programs are immigrants or are children of recent immigrants and believe that bilingual education just isn't needed.
     They say, "lf we learned English and succeeded in school without bilingual education, then why can't others?" True enough. Some immigrants do well in public schools with little or no assistance in their native language.
     I was one of those students. Arriving in the United States at the age of 8, I was placed in a third-grade class. The school had few limited-English-proficient students and even fewer Asian language speakers. I believe I've succeeded in school, having graduated from high school and college.
     And until several years ago, I was one of those people who didn't see the need for bilingual education. That is, until I realized that I did get bilingual education, just not in school. I had what some call de facto bilingual education.
     I got help in my schoolwork from my parents and my older and more English-fluent sisters--in Chinese. Other immigrant students get help in their native language from hired tutors or bilingual classmates. In some subjects like math, I had already learned the concepts being taught in class in my native country and understood the lessons in English, at least initially, without much assistance.
     I was exposed to good English instruction from my siblings and from the English-speaking children on our block. Some immigrant students have English tutors or get help in community after-school programs.
     I also knew how to read and write in Chinese. Other children learn to read and write in their native language in the home, in community language schools or like me, in their native country. Knowing how to read and write in the native language helps tremendously when facing the same task in another tongue.
     However, not all students get, outside of school, the three things that good bilingual programs provide: help with school subjects in the native language, quality English instruction and literacy development in the native tongue so that reading and writing is easier in the new language. Unless these students get bilingual education through school, they are unlikely to learn well and succeed in school.
     Isn't the goal of education to help all students succeed academically? If so, then we need to give them the best possible schooling. These students need well-implemented bilingual education programs, ones that researchers, parents and teachers overwhelmingly support.
Lucy Tse Is an Assistant Professor of Education at Loyola Marymount University.