Our school systems play host to dozens of languages in addition to the standard fare of English. Starting in the late 1960s, partially as a swing off the Civil Rights Movement, school systems were required by law to provide bilingual education anytime twenty or more children spoke the same foreign language, and were found to be limited in their English proficiency. At first, the need for such programs was small, but over time it has been steadily increasing until now where the need has reached what many consider to be massive. In recent years, the population of the United States has exploded with many non-English speaking students, making the need for bilingual education more urgent. Although this amount is growing yearly, it is inadequate to provide the much needed instruction for this special subset of children. Bilingual education is a must if children are to succeed in the academic environment and in becoming productive adults.
Numerous researchers have reported a correlation between a students world experience and their level of reading comprehension. Often times stories and reading material are written from a largely white perspective and this results in less overall comprehension and poor reading scores especially for the Limited English Proficient student. Bilingual programs allow such children the opportunity to become acquainted with the concepts first in their own language and then in the predominant language of this country, English. Linguists have found that the strongest way to learn a language is to have a strong base in one’s native language. A child who has learned to write and read in the native language will build strong language skills. Statistics show that that the average language-minority child who is not given bilingual education is more likely to be held back one or more years in their elementary school education, and there is a direct correlation between the dropout rate, and non-receipt of bilingual education.
As with practically any academic pursuit, a students success or failure in reading comprehension is highly dependent it seems on their cultural background. On the language in which classroom materials are both written and spoken in, the students proficiency in both their first and second languages, and on the cultural content of the classroom materials. Likewise, a students attitude and motivation plays a very important part in their success in learning a second language. Students with more positive attitudes towards the people, and the culture they are being integrated into are more successful. In Richard Rodriguezs essay entitled ARIA, he explains What I needed to learn in school was that I had the right- and the obligation- to speak the public language of los gringos.(Rodriguez 531) When comfortable that they have the right to learn another language, students gain the positive attitude, as well as the self esteem that is so badly needed to succeed.
Another unexpected source of support comes from Deborah Tannen in her essay entitled Conversational Styles. Americans are often proud that they discount the significance of cultural differences: We are all individuals, many people boast. Ignoring such issues as gender, and ethnicity becomes a source of pride: I treat everyone the same. But treating people the same is not equal treatment if they are not the same.(Tannen 549) By discounting the cultural differences such as language, students are not being treated as equals, as they are not being allowed to learn English. A perfect example of this is shown every day in the classroom when children slip into their desks, and pull out their English books.
Also, how much the student perceives the need of the new language can have a great impact on how willing they are to learn it. In terms of his own advancement in perhaps obtaining a job where it may be necessary to know English, or meeting some other goal, which is important to the student. If the student feels English would improve their quality of life, such as helping them to advance to college, get a better job, or perhaps a raise, it can help to increase their drive for learning. As well as helping them to function in a society that is predominately English speaking.
Although according to Gloria Anzaldua in her essay entitled How To Tame A Wild Tongue, They had a whole lifetime of being immersed in their native tongue; generations, centuries, in which Spanish was a first language, taught in school, heard on radio and TV, and read in the newspaper.(Anzaldua 542) Spanish speaking adults are now realizing that for students to succeed, or have a chance at a decent life it is important for them to learn English. By being supportive, and helpful, this also helps a student realize the importance of advancing in their knowledge.
Bilingual education is important from another perspective as well. It can be contended that it benefits our mainstream English-speaking students almost as much as it does Limited English Proficient students. The United States is somewhat unique in that it is more uncommon than common for a citizen to speak more than one language. In Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other countries just the opposite is true, most citizens speak more than one language.
Exposure to bilingual programs aids not only the Limited English Proficient student but also has the potential of being an advantage to the mainstream English-speaking student by providing contact with other cultures, and the incentive to perhaps learn their language as well.
The arguments surrounding both the cost of bilingual education, and its effectiveness are many, and varied. Those who oppose it claim that it simply delays a childs entry into the mainstream academic environment, and isolates them within a special group of students who are neither proficient in the English language nor, in many cases, their own. This may be true to an extent, however, to throw them into the mainstream academic environment without the advantage of bilingual education can also isolate them, and put labels on them. Many will be labeled dumb, and perhaps they will not be able to fit in, make friends, or may not even finish school.
Federally funded programs are often criticized for their failure to require that teachers themselves be proficient in English, or for devoting too much attention to non-English speakers at the expense of English speakers, and for overall being ineffective. Neither of these are accurate criticisms as Federal programs do have requirements that teachers be proficient in both the language they are instructing in, and English. And adequate programs are already in place for the mainstream student such as the special education classes to help slow students, and the speech therapy programs schools have to help students with the English they already know. However, little is available specifically for the Limited English Proficient child. Many schools in the United States do not even have a bilingual educational program set up.
The assertion that bilingual programs are ineffective is completely false. Bilingual instructional programs aid the Limited English Proficient Child in numerous ways, not the least of which is in instilling a greater level of reading comprehension, one of the highest determinants of a students academic success. No matter where a student lives, they are bound to need English at some point and time in their lives. If a student has the ability to read English, they have a better chance at learning how to speak it, and this will also help the student in the changing, growing world around them.
The availability of bilingual education programs, however, varies around the world, not just in the United States. Cultures differ in their expectations of students to learn the majority language. In Canada for example, minority languages are officially encouraged. In Israeli society, on the other hand, Israel imposes the majority language on all students. Israeli Jews, for example, are forced to learn to perform in a foreign language. Here in the United States, we are gradually realizing the importance of bilingual education, and are trying to make it more accessible to all students. Students, and parents should have the ability to choose, just as everyone else has.
To conclude, language goes hand-in-hand with culture, and a students success in learning a new language is directly dependent on their willingness to take on new cultural behaviors. A student who is well grounded in his or her own native language is much more likely to succeed in a largely English-speaking academic environment. Bilingual education programs give the student the opportunity, and the desire to become acquainted with a new culture and a new language. This makes them much more likely to succeed academically once they are out of school, and have taken their places as adults in society.