It's time we had a chat about bilingual education


Email Sandra Nichols

  "Spanish speaking children who do not have English speaking playmates, have a reduced opportunity to acquire English language skills."

et's sit down, take a calming breath, and talk rationally about our schools and bilingual education. We'll have to talk about test scores, how schools stack up against each other, and what parents want for their children. We'll have to discuss how children learn things. Cultural values and linguistically segregated schools come forward as relevant.

One of the men at the table interjected, "Why don't you just teach them to speak English? It's clear that's what they need."

I agree with you, sir, that students in California must learn English. Of course, they must. English skills are essential. Bilingual education does not mean Spanish language schools. If students are not learning English in their bilingual programs there is something wrong.

A young mother responded that her children weren't learning to speak English at school, and this concerns her greatly. "Quiero que aprendan ingles."

Parents have an important role in choosing whether their children are taught in English or with bilingual methods. Different kinds of classes are available and parents need to know that they have the right to make the final decision regarding this choice. A teacher or principal at the school will be able to describe the different program choices and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Bilingual education has some very significant advantages which should not be overlooked. Primarily, bilingual teaching enables students to learn subject matter such as reading and writing during the years while they are learning English. Language skills form the base upon which many other school skills are learned. Bilingual education gives children time to learn English, while they proceed to learn academic skills in the language they can understand.

The man continued, "Bilingual education is a failure. Just look at the test scores for bilingual students! We have several schools in our community which are rated 1-1 on the state ranking system, the very worst possible rating for schools in California. Those schools have bilingual education. That proves what a failure it is."

Just a minute, sir! The test scores are indicating that a problem exists, but they do not reveal the cause of the problem. When I look at the various test scores of our area schools, I am struck by the achievement gap which exists in English between schools which serve mainly English Language Learners (bilingual students) and schools serving predominantly English speaking students.

The gap is appalling. However, it is not indicative of real student abilities, nor lack of motivation on the part of students, parents or teachers. Neither is it evidence that bilingual methods of instruction aren't superior to English immersion methods for many students. I believe it is indicative of the unfortunate social and geographic gap which separates the English Language Learners from most of their monolingual English peers. Learning to speak English at school when you spend most of your waking hours in neighborhoods and social situations in which little English is spoken, is about as difficult as learning to speak French in a high school class.

The man then shouted, "I know a guy who came here from Italy when he was five years old. He learned English in kindergarten and never needed bilingual education!"

Yes, everyone seems to know someone who learned to speak English in one year. Some people seem to learn languages quite quickly. Also, motivation is a huge factor. If you have no friends that speak your language, you are going to be very motivated to learn English. If all of your playmates speak English, you are also going to have lots of opportunities to hear correct English being spoken.

It is that which many of our students in Watsonville, Ca. have only in short supply! Spanish speaking children who do not have English speaking playmates, have a reduced opportunity to acquire English language skills. Children learn a lot from their peers and they learn from their parents.

I advise parents who do not speak English to do three things for their children. First, express interest and enthusiasm for them learning English. Second, try to learn some English with your child. This will show your child how important you think it is. Third, try to get your child into a group or club with English speaking children.

I never advise parents to sacrifice their own language through which their culture and love are communicated to their children. To learn to speak English, one does not have to give up the native language.

The young women spoke up in Spanish, saying that she thinks she is too old to learn English. She said, "Los ninos aprenden ingles mejor que los adultos."

People always say that kids learn language faster than grown ups, but this is frequently not the case. In fact, a person of any age can learn to speak a new language, if he or she is motivated and has opportunities to hear the language being spoken in a way that they can understand. Opportunities to practice are important, too.

Let's stimulate cross-cultural connections. Not just for children but for the whole community. Let's bridge this gap. Exciting opportunities exist. Schools in which the gap is bridged have higher test scores! This is not about bilingual versus monolingual. It is about getting people together and having them talk.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools in Santa Cruz, California and sits on the Governing Board of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. This essay was first published in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, Feb. 17, 2001. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily reflect those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2001

Read other essays about Bilingual Education:
Unz is wrong—we can make bilingual education work (5/31/98)
Learning fluent English requires many years of effort and daily exposure (5/31/00)