Philadelpia Daily News

Tuesday, June 9, 1998

Added to English, Not Instead of It

Bilingual education shouldn't be a political issue, as it has become in California, where voters last week effectively banned all such programs.

It ought to be an educational issue.

Done well, it produces students who are fluent in English and another language, most often Spanish. Done poorly, it yields students who are ill educated in two languages, including English.

Daily News staff writer Myung Oak Kim reported yesterday on the range of language programs for students who speak a language other than English at home and who also speak English poorly. The core issue here, as everywhere, is how good a job those programs are doing of teaching children English -- enabling them to learn and succeed in the dominant language of this nation and society.

The suggestion of Kim's story is that the School District doesn't really know, at least at the important level of regularly evaluating programs and techniques for their effectiveness. This includes the many students being taught English as a second language and not being given instruction in their first language.

There should be no doubt, though, that such programs can be useful and ought to be valued.

The first consideration is educational: helping children make the transition to English fluency while not falling behind in content. It's not that the concepts in history or math or science are different between languages so much as that the words for those concepts are.

Then there is the matter of the changing economy and world in which Americans, regardless of background, must live and work. Apart from the need to improve what children can do with, say, calculus, physics or computer science, there is also a great need for more Americans who are educated speakers of other languages. How many Toyotas do you think would be sold in this country if the ads were in Japanese?

Many critics think wrongly that such programs teach children some other language instead of English; bilingual programs teach another language in addition to English.

It is ironic at best and foolish at worst that a backlash against other languages is at work in parts of this nation, even as the usefulness of speaking other languages is growing.

If Philadelphia is to avoid the know-nothing hell into which California is descending, its language programs for speakers of other languages must be first-rate.