Learning fluent English requires many years of effort and daily exposure


Email Sandra Nichols

  "How long does it take to learn English as a second language? Bilingual experts say it takes six to eight years. Everyone else seems to know someone or be someone who 'learned English in six months.'"

have an opinion about bilingual education. It appears that I am not alone. Everybody seems to have an opinion. I would like to address some of the questions people have about bilingual education.

The award for the most frequently asked question goes to: "Why don't they just learn English?" The implication here is that some students out there are not trying hard enough to learn English or that some teachers are holding them back. The truth is that students do want to learn English and teachers are teaching it. There's no doubt about this: students and parents want English to be taught at school. Believe me. It is taught in bilingual classrooms here in Santa Cruz, from the beginning of kindergarten and continuing on up through the grades. Bilingual teachers are as dedicated to teaching their students to speak English as they are to giving their students a good education.

Recently in this newspaper I read that bilingual teachers do not teach lessons in English until about 4th grade. Readers should understand that, ideally, English is taught on a daily basis. This starts when students enter school, and increases every year until students are ready to have all of their classes taught in English. In the meantime, while students are acquiring English oral skills, bilingual teaching techniques involve presentation of academic lessons taught in the child's dominant language. This is not done to inhibit English skill growth, but to allow these students to learn how to read, write and do other skills while they learn English. The teaching of reading cannot be delayed until a child is a competent English speaker.

This brings up another frequently pondered and debated question. "How long does it take to learn English as a second language?" Bilingual experts say it takes six to eight years. Everyone else seems to know someone or be someone who "learned English in six months."

Here's the truth: in 6 months you can learn enough English to "get by" in certain social situations. People will say that you speak English, but you cannot understand complex, rapid oral English, the kind of language necessary for demanding schoolwork. That competency level is attained after several years of being continuously exposed to fluent English speakers and getting continuous practice.

The number of hours a day that the child hears English is also a factor in the length of time it takes to acquire skills. I believe the reason we see some U.S.-born 10-year-olds who do not speak English competently is that these children are living in social clusters where they do not always have English speaking models. They hear advanced English being spoken mostly at school, a limited number of hours, and only on weekdays. Associating with more advanced English speakers in the after-school hours and on weekends would greatly increase their progress in English. In my experience in the Santa Cruz public schools, I see children coming to school eager and willing to learn English. I see their parents as very enthusiastic about the prospect of their children becoming competent English speakers, and becoming successful United States citizens and workers. Both parents and students manifest pride in the English that they learn. Bilingual education has the same ultimate goal: that by the time students graduate from high school they be well-educated, competent English speakers, ready to succeed in our society.

There is no short cut to a good education. Students require time to build their oral English language skills. Five or six years is not too long to become a truly bilingual person on the road to obtaining a good education. Students need a strong language base on which to build academic skills.

The barb of the current anti-bilingual education movement is that so many people (including many Hispanics) are so discouraged by the limited success of the bilingual program in California that they are willing to destroy the program. I personally see the limited success and am frustrated also, but I do not believe that the program is based on faulty concepts, but rather that some resolvable challenges remain. Bilingualism is worth the effort. It expands horizons and increases a person's value in many situations, including the workplace.

Let's fix the problems, and make the programs better.

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, Nov. 23, 1997, prior to Sandra's election to the P.V.U.S.D. School Board. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 1997

Read other essays about Bilingual Education:
We can make bilingual education work (5/31/00)
It's time we had a chat about bilingual education (2/17/01)