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Bilingual Education

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Ron Unz is running for the United States Senate. One of the major reasons is that bilingual education might be restored in California via the California Multilingual Education Act. Here is state Senator Ricardo Lara in Senator Lara Announces Bill Supporting Multilingual Education:

Multiple studies have shown that supporting children’s home language in early years is critical to later academic achievement, and results in better outcomes than English-only approaches. Additionally, researchers have also found that it is not just English learners who benefit from instruction in two languages – children from English-only homes enrolled in such programs had a distinct reading advantage over their peers in English-only programs.

“Extensive research has shown that students who build strong biliteracy skills (in English and one or more other languages) have higher academic success, a foundation for increased salary earnings, and stronger cognitive skills as they grow older,” said Jan Gustafson-Corea CEO of the California Association for Bilingual Education. “CABE supports Senator Lara’s bill as one that will promote educational equity and excellence in our schools and create a pathway for success for all students in the 21st century.”

“English will always remain the official language of California, but we cannot ignore the growing need to have a multilingual workforce,” said Lara.

I have a personal story that I can bring to bear on this. I arrived in the United States with only rudimentary knowledge of English (my maternal grandmother taught me a bit before I came to this country). When I entered kindergarten at at 5 I was not fluent. By the end of kindergarten I basically knew English at the fluent level, and any perception that English might have been a second language was gone by the time I finished 1st grade. At home my parents continued to speak Bengali to me, a language in which my fluency remains at the level of a 5 year old (I’m also illiterate).

As a teaching assistant in the UC system I’ve encountered some older students who exhibit a peculiar linguistic profile. Almost always Latino, they have a very mild accent in English, but are basically verbally fluent. But they are shockingly less fluent in written English. My first “wake-up” call was on a final exam where a student of mine asked for the definition of a word. My initial thought was “Dude, I can’t define scientific words for you, that’s your job.” It was the word composition. This is not an isolated incident. I’ve learned not to infer written fluency from verbal fluency for Latino students who are old enough to have gone through bilingual education as it was practiced in California in the 1990s.

Jessica_Alba_SDCC_2014 Recently I had dinner with one of these students. He received an A in class. Born in the United States he is of Mexican American background. Though he has strong quantitative and analytic skills, his fluency in written English is not at the same level. Over dinner he explained why: he was in Spanish language classes until he was 13. He didn’t start reading English until he was a teenager, so written English is for him for all practical purposes a second language.

I put the word operationally in the title for a reason: there are forms of bilingual education which are fine, and redound to a students’ success. My brother-in-law was in a French language immersion school and he has no problem with the English. But the immersion schools that middle class American students experience are not the bilingual schools which are set up in California’s Central Valley.

I understand that there are studies which indicate multilingualism are beneficial cognitively. I’m mildly skeptical of these studies, but I don’t believe they speak to the sort of schools which will reemerge if bilingual education is brought back. Additionally, I am aware that enabling Mexican American children to learn English will not be a panacea for weak college preparation for a variety of reasons. It hasn’t been so far at least. But fostering an environment where these people are linguistically segregated is not going to help anything in the near future. Unless you are a particular type of multiculturalist who actually prefers a Balkanized society (or, a racialist).

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Bilingual Education 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com"