U.S. Catholic

Sunday, November 1, 1998

Let's Not Say Adios to Bilingual Education

A GREAT TRAVESTY OCCURRED IN CALIFORNIA on June 2, 1998. By passing Proposition 227, California's voters elected to terminate bilingual education in their state. It was a sad day for our country because we allowed ill-informed politicians and xenophobic voters to dictate educational policy.

The United States is a country of immigrants—immigrants who have come seeking freedom and the pursuit of the American dream. Throughout history, English has been the common language that has united these immigrants from all over the world. English is the language of this great country. None of us who support bilingual education question the validity or the importance of the English language, as some would like the public to believe. Quality bilingual programs emphasize the acquisition of English. English is taught to all immigrant students; it is required, and we aim to perfect it in the school setting.

Yet to learn English, students need not forget the language they bring to school with them'be it Spanish, Vietnamese, or Urdu. Bilingual education is not like an antibiotic that we give to children who are sick, their illness being lack of English. As soon as the children are well, that is, as soon as they know English, the antibiotic—bilingual education—is removed. Good bilingual programs are not remedial but enrichment programs.

One common misunderstanding is that bilingual education is the exclusive domain of immigrant students. No: studying a second language is a right that belongs to all students—recently arrived refugees, African Americans, and, yes, white Americans. Languages expand a child's cognitive development. Knowing more than one language is not an impediment to intellectual capacity. If it were, the rest of the world's children outside of the United States would be intellectually inferior to ours. After all, the majority of them are bilingual.

Years ago, being bilingual was a privilege reserved for those who could afford to send their children to private tutors or to a finishing school in Europe. It was a privilege reserved for those who traveled and went to the opera. In today's global economy, being bilingual can no longer remain a privilege reserved for the elite. Today, being bilingual is a right that must transcend all socioeconomic strata. Denying all students that right is not only a mistake, it is an injustice.

Students are enabled—not disabled—by being bilingual; they are empowered by knowing more than one language. The American experience is strengthened, not weakened, by citizens who can cross languages and cultures. The United States can no longer afford to remain a monolingual country in a multilingual world. Being bilingual and biliterate not only gives people a political and economic advantage, it also allows them to be bridges between people of different cultures.

For immigrant students, being bilingual means having the best of two worlds—their home culture and language and our nation's culture and English language. For native speakers of English, knowing a second language means opening up their horizons to the richness of cultural diversity and becoming active participants in—and not merely spectators of—today's global society. In no way does it require supplanting one language and culture with another.

THIS MAY COME AS A SURPRISE to many, but bilingual education is not a recent phenomenon in this country. Its history in the U.S. falls into two distinct periods: the first from 1840 to 1920 and the second beginning in the early 1960s.

In 1840 a form of bilingual education originated in Cincinnati with a state law designed to draw German children into the American schools. Several other similar initiatives, which provided instruction in Dutch, Italian, and Polish, among others, took place during the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. During World War I, strong anti-German sentiments increased, and by the end of the war bilingual programs were terminated and 'Americanism' and English-only instruction were promoted. Some states went so far as to impose restrictions on the instruction of foreign languages.

Instruction in and through two languages disappeared from the U.S. from 1920 until 1963, when thousands of Cuban refugees poured into the Miami area, opening up a second phase of bilingual schooling in this country. In an effort to meet the needs of the Cuban refugee children, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools organized a dual-language instructional program at Coral Way Elementary with a student population evenly divided between Spanish speakers and English speakers. Both groups spent half of their day being instructed in English and the other half in Spanish, thus immersing themselves in two languages and cultures.

Since then, federal and state laws and court decisions have not only allowed but directed local school districts to create special programs to meet the academic needs of non-English-speaking students. But almost 30 years after the passing of the Bilingual Education Act, the debate over the benefits of bilingual education continues to be politically and emotionally charged. Also lingering after 30 years seems to be a dreadful ignorance over the definition of bilingual education and its goals and practices. Those who make for themselves a political agenda over the issue attack bilingual education as a failure based on a very limited knowledge of one specific bilingual-education model while ignoring others that have been extremely successful, not only in this country but throughout the world.

Critics of bilingual education who regard it as a dismal failure claim that children enrolled in bilingual programs do not learn English and that the research regarding the benefits of bilingual programs is contradictory and inconsistent. They assert that immersion programs are superior to bilingual programs and believe that after one year of English immersion, non-English-speaking students will be ready to be mainstreamed into regular, English-speaking classes.

Much of educational policy, whether it is bilingual education or reading, stems from pendulum swings from one extreme to another. Unfortunately, immersion programs have failed to prove a successful track record. To wipe out bilingual programs in favor of a sink-or-swim curriculum is a simplistic political solution to a complex educational issue. Moreover, it hardly seems fair to blame bilingual education for all the ills of California's 1.4 million limited-English-proficient students when less than 30 percent of them are enrolled in bilingual programs.

Those of us who have dedicated our professional lives to the promotion of bilingual education can assert that properly organized and executed bilingual programs not only work, they work extremely well. This does not mean that some bilingual models cannot be improved. However, there is ample research that demonstrates without a doubt that good bilingual programs are successful—and none that could claim such success for one-year immersion programs.

The school district I work for, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth largest in the country, has been in the forefront of bilingual education since the establishment of Coral Way Elementary in 1963. Our programs are recognized nationally and internationally as programs that promote excellence in English and another language for all students who want to avail themselves of that opportunity.

Bilingual programs in our district provide instruction in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to students with limited English proficiency as soon as they enroll in school. Students are provided instruction in their home language for approximately 20 percent of the instructional time, but the primary goal is the rapid acquisition of English. At the same time, Miami-Dade County Public Schools embraces diversity and offers all our students the opportunity to enroll in quality programs that promote literacy in a language other than English. We promote high standards for all of our students whether the instruction is in English, Spanish, Haitian-Creole, or French.

AS THE WAVES BEAT AGAINST THE SHORE and drag everything in sight, it sometimes seems that whenever California voters make an earthshaking decision at the polls, the rest of the country wants to follow suit. How will California's decision affect bilingual education in the rest of the country? Thankfully, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools and districts in many other states (e.g., New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) have no interest in eliminating bilingual education. Bilingual education is viewed as quintessential to living in this part of the country. In south Florida, and much of the rest of the world for that matter, being bilingual and biliterate is not a liability but an asset.

Bilingualism not only prepares students for today's increasingly global economy and promotes cognitive development and creative thinking, it also instills pride. And, as a Catholic, I would also argue that bilingualism is rooted in gospel values and based on justice. What position should Catholics, and Christians in general, take in the continuing public debate of this issue? It seems to me that we are called to be more informed and compassionate toward immigrants than the average California voter.

In 1963 Pope John XXIII addressed the treatment of minorities in his encyclical letter Pacem in terris (On Peace on Earth): "It is especially in keeping with the principles of justice that effective measures be taken by civil authorities to improve the lot of the citizens of an ethnic minority, particularly when that betterment concerns their language [and] . . . their ancestral customs." Language, notes a document of the Southeast Regional Office for Hispanic Ministry in Miami, "expresses the soul of the people."

The 1985 Vatican-sponsored World Congress on the Pastoral of Emigration observed in its final document: "Experience has shown that the inability of expression in the mother tongue and the elimination of religious traditions . . . greatly damage the conscience, impoverish the cultural surroundings, provoke separation and even schism, and reduce the numbers of the faithful."

Those who question the need for bilingual education are often the same people who question why Masses have to be said in Spanish. Perhaps the words of Pope Paul VI in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi can do a better job of persuading them than those of us in bilingual education have been able to do: "Evangelization loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their particular lives. . . . The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times."

It is unfortunate that California's Proposition 227 passed. It is revolting that bilingual education has been killed at the hands of people who do not understand its virtues. It is offensive that bilingual education continues to be solely associated with immigration. And it is shameful that we have forgotten that when this nation was founded, English was not the exclusive language of the country.

Unlike the western waves, South Florida's waves are of a different nature. They embrace the shores with the linguistic plurality needed to fortify the shores, not destroy them.

Lourdes Rovira is executive director for bilingual education and foreign languages for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.