Unz is wrong—we can make bilingual education work


Email Sandra Nichols

  "Bilingual graduates from programs in other countries are shown to have better literacy skills than monolinguals, in study after study."

oters in California will soon be making a very important decision when they cast their ballots on June 2. I wish to share what has been learned regarding Proposition 227, which proposes to terminate bilingual education in California. This article answers the questions voters have about bilingual education.

Shouldn't students be taught English in the public schools? Of course they should. Many studies done by universities have proven that limited English speakers learn English best in bilingual programs. No studies have shown to the contrary, that English immersion programs teach English better or faster. Everybody can agree that we want children to emerge from our public schools with a good command of the English language. The truth about bilingual education when its taught by trained bilingual teachers is that children start to learn English in kindergarten, and receive daily lessons to help them acquire English. The percentage of their school week presented in English increases every year until the students are competent oral communicators in English, and then they start to have their reading and other coursework taught in English. By the time they transfer to junior high, when the bilingual learning system is fully functional, they are ready for all-English course work.

Why do so many students leave elementary school without being fully competent English language users? There are several reasons for this happening. One is that new students are constantly arriving in our public schools from other countries. Students enter school at all grade levels, with no exposure to English. These recently arrived students form a large group. Additionally, in many areas of California, there just aren't enough trained bilingual teachers to fully implement bilingual education. Only 30% of the limited English speakers in California have the benefit of bilingual programs. The rest contribute to the number of students who do not become proficient English users.

Unz says, "Bilingual education is used nowhere else in the word." Why should we have bilingual education here? In truth, many countries have bilingual education. Bilingual education is found and has been proven effective in Norway, the Netherlands, England, China, Sweden, Australia and Mexico. Bilingual graduates from programs in these countries are shown to have better literacy skills than monolinguals, in study after study.

Why don't they just learn English? Students in the Santa Cruz public schools are definitely learning English. They can not however, be expected to learn enough English in one year to succeed in regular English-only classrooms in competition with students who have been exposed to English from birth. No language teacher will tell you that one year is enough to learn a language. Yet we hear from the proponents of "English-only" that motivated immigrants learn English quickly. It is true that motivation is an important aspect of language learning. Equally important is an accepting environment in which students feel safe and valued. In one year, a person can learn enough English to participate in basic social conversations. It takes approximately 6 years to acquire enough skills in a second language to thrive in a mainstream, English-only education environment.

Why teach academic subjects to students in a foreign language like Spanish? Shouldn't we just teach them in English? After all, this is America! The principles of bilingual education are based on these facts:

1.) It is most efficient to teach students to read in the language they understand.

2.) Nobody should have to wait until they gain English skills to be taught complex subject matter.

3.) Once you learn how to read, your reading skills transfer almost automatically to reading in a second language.

If bilingual programs are so effective, why do so many Hispanic youths drop out of school? Good question, deserving a good answer. Hispanic youths do drop out of school at an alarming rate. This phenomena has been studied. It was found that Hispanics were dropping out of school due to economic reasons. They simply had to get a full time job. Poverty, not bilingual education, is reducing some students' chance of success. It has also been found that students who excel in school are most often those whose educational careers can be fully supported by their parents. If immigrant students are taught only in English, their parents can not fully participate or support their children's education.

The issues involving bilingual students are not easily resolved. Educators have difficulty in devising one system that works for all. If Proposition 227 were to pass, all of the effective bilingual programs will be against the law. We will have in their place a system which will poorly serve many of our English language learners. Vote No on Prop 227.

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 Santa Cruz Sentinel, May, 31, 1998. 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 1998

Read other essays about Bilingual Education:
It's time we had a chat about bilingual education (2/17/01)
Learning fluent English requires many years of effort and daily exposure (11/23/97)