Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mythbusting: Bilingual Education (or why I should never read the comments on internet articles)

This summer, my grandmother passed away. It's likely that she would disagree with a lot of what I'm about to say, but she's a big reason that I write it.

My grandmother in her family passport picture,
taken before the family moved to Guatemala.
My grandmother's mother was Russian and her father was of Spanish heritage; his family lived in Guatemala. When my grandmother was small, her parents took the entire family to Guatemala to live with her father's family. My great-grandmother had a gift for languages, and though Russian was her native language, she spoke English and Spanish. Of course, in Guatemala, the whole family spoke Spanish.

I thought of my grandmother today as I was reading a short article a friend posted on Facebook, about how English language learners in Texas are segregated in some of the poorest schools. Silly me, I scanned down and read the comments. 

I should never, ever read the comments. Instead of interpreting the article as a story of the injustice of segregation, many saw it as an opportunity to comment on the existence of bilingual education.

The comments went like this:

"Kids need to learn English. This is America."

"Bilingual education holds kids back. It doesn't prepare kids for success in America."

"Did you know that kids in bilingual education only learn a little bit of English at first? They should be immersed in it!"

"When I was a kid, I was punished for speaking Spanish. I turned out fine."

You can practically hear the huffs of outrage coming through the computer.

And I thought of my grandmother because she often said these same sorts of things. "I learned English!" she would exclaim. "Why can't they [usually she was referring to recent immigrants in her California town] learn English?" She would then equate not learning English to all kinds of ills: drunk driving, the welfare state, etc. One time she shook her finger at me and almost shouted: "The problem with you liberals is that you just don't think!"

Probably, the problem with us liberals is that we think too much and believe that facts will win the day. So of course, I want to respond to those internet comments.

Myth #1:
"Kids need to learn English. This is America."
Umm... OK... There's an assumption that English is somehow the official language of America. But America has no official language.  If we wanted to go with the native language, we would have to choose an indigenous language, but many of them have been lost, or nearly so - due largely to the systematic destruction of those languages through English-only schooling.

Myth #2:
"Bilingual education holds kids back. It doesn't prepare kids for success in America."
The argument here is that if kids are educated in Spanish - the most common language of bilingual programs -- they are being prepared for low-wage careers of the type we usually associate with recent immigrants.

There's so much wrong with this, it's hard to know where to begin.

A) this assumes that the only possible use of Spanish is in low-wage jobs. However, Spanish is one of the most-spoken languages in the world, as is English. Being bilingual in two of the world's most commonly-spoken languages can only add to one's earning power.
B) It also assumes that one will somehow be less successful in school if they are taught in their first language. But there's plenty of research that shows when children learn in their first language, they ultimately do better in school. Why? Well... 

"When we use the first language to teach subject matter, we give children knowledge, and this knowledge helps make the English children hear and read more comprehensible. A limited-English proficient child who knows her math, for example, thanks to math instruction in her primary language, will understand more in an English-language medium math class than a child without a good background in math. This results in better achievement in math and more English language development." - Stephen Krashen

C) Bilingual education is actually desired by many high-income parents, because they know we live in a global - not simply national - society. They put their children in programs to learn Mandarin, French, and, yes, Spanish, because educated parents know that being bilingual is a benefit in many ways.  

Myth #3: 
"Did you know that kids in bilingual education only learn a little bit of English at first? They should be immersed in it!"

There are many models of bilingual education, and they involve learning different amounts of the target language at different times. However, due to point (B) above, many of them develop knowledge in the child's native language at first.

I will say, the quality of bilingual program varies. If the program isn't strong, then the transition to English is often rocky. If a school isn't high-quality, however, it's likely that being immersed in English would also cause problems due to the general quality of the school itself.

Myth #5
"When I was a kid, I was punished for speaking Spanish. I turned out fine."

It's likely that my grandmother would have said (or did say) something like this. But I really wonder -- can losing your language and taking on another leave one unscarred? Can you really be "fine"?

My grandmother was about 5 when she left Guatemala and came back to the U.S. Because her father did not come with the family when they returned to the U.S., she and her sister were temporarily placed in an orphanage while her mother got back on her feet. The sisters punished them if they spoke Spanish to each other.

In that situation, wouldn't you bury some of the pain, try to adapt as quickly as possible? Wouldn't you convince yourself that it was better to learn English, when everyone around you was telling you that the language of your family was wrong, was punishable? And while most children may not be punished for using their first language today, they are told in hundreds of tiny ways that their language is not good enough.

As an adult, as I've learned more about my family history, I've tried to reclaim some of what was lost - trying (badly) to learn Spanish, to ensure that the children I work with understand the beauty and advantage of being bilingual. I don't want any child to feel like she can't talk to her sister, to feel that she has to lose her language to gain a new one.  

We have to do better in our bilingual programs - there are plenty that aren't great. But we can't let myths dictate how our children experience their language. School can be a place where children grow, or a place where they lose - language, identity, history. We have a long way to go before every child can truly flourish in our schools, but respecting language and identity - and their place in learning - is a good place to start.

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