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Bilingual teaching issue at a boil. California controversy spotlights national debate over teaching children in their native tongues

Say ``bilingual education,'' and you invite a war of words. For 10 years, debate has raged over how best to teach English to immigrant children in the United States. Now the issue is again reaching the boiling point - on the national level as well as in California, where about one-fourth of the country's non-English-speaking children reside.

Adding fuel to the fire is the pro-English movement, which has picked up momentum nationwide since its successful campaign last fall (through Proposition 63) to make English the official language of California. Part of the pro-English platform is to revise bilingual education, and its architects now appear to be making their influence felt as state and federal lawmakers grapple with legislation to renew bilingual programs.

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``It seems that what happened in California with Proposition 63 had a lot of impact [in Congress],'' says Loye Miller, spokesman for US Education Secretary William J. Bennett. Lawmakers ``have been reading the mood out there, and they realized the [bilingual-aid] program might be killed altogether if they didn't change it.''

Federal funding for bilingual education ends in 1989, but Congress is already working on legislation to renew the program. Although a bill may not clear both houses until next year, so far it looks as if additional federal dollars will be flowing to programs that emphasize English-only instruction - a discernible shift toward the preferences of Secretary Bennett and groups like US English.

California, however, has a more immediate concern. Authorization of its bilingual program, widely considered the most definitive in the nation, expires at the end of the month.

A bill to renew bilingual education is moving through the Legislature, but Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a similar bill last year - and is expected to do so again.

At issue: While non-English-speaking children are learning English, should their native language be used to teach them other subjects such as math, history, and science? Or should the students be ``immersed'' in an English-speaking classroom, receiving intensive English instruction during part of the day?

California law requires the former, stating that a school must provide native-language instruction anytime there are 10 or more children in a grade level who do not speak English. After 10 years on the books, the bilingual law has a lot of admirers as well as a lot of critics. Both say research and test results support their preferred method of educating the state's half million non-English-speaking students.

In the San Francisco Unified School District, a third of the students in elementary school receive bilingual instruction. Non-English-speaking Chinese, Hispanic, and Filipino students spend, on average, three or four years in bilingual classes before being ``mainstreamed'' into classes that use only English, says Ligaya Avenida, director of the bilingual program for the district.

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The program appears to be working. Children who have been mainstreamed are performing as well, or better, than other students in the district, Ms. Avenida says, citing a study conducted last year.

Such programs help ensure that non-English-speaking children are up to speed in all academic subjects while they learn English, says James J. Lyons, legislative counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education. ``These children have to learn other subjects at the same time as English-speaking children, or they'll fall behind,'' he says. ``The number of years a child is held back in school is highly correlated with dropping out.''

But Gloria Tuchman, a first grade teacher at Taft Elementary School in Santa Ana, Calif., says three or four years is too long. At Taft, which uses the English-immersion method, most of her students learn enough English in a year to advance to the second grade.

The 32 students in Mrs. Tuchman's class speak 10 different languages. ``I don't speak 10 languages, so teaching in the native language is an impossibility,'' she says. But even if she could, she wouldn't. Tuchman says the current system allows children to become ``trapped and separated in their language, especially for Hispanics.''

Tuchman, who is Hispanic, says Asian students are being educated in English because there aren't enough bilingual teachers who speak Vietnamese, Khmer, Hmong, Laotian, Cantonese, or Tagalog. ``We're only doing it [native-language instruction] for Hispanics, and I see them getting farther and farther behind.''

Such charges rile Hispanic groups and educators who favor native-language instruction. Mr. Lyons, in turn, says the critics are trying to dismantle bilingual education, and he notes a surge of ``xenophobia and a return to nativism'' in the US.

Bilingual education has become a volatile political issue in California. Compromise is being sought through an amendment to require written parental consent before a child can be placed in a bilingual class. State Assemblyman Frank Hill of Los Angeles, sponsor of the bill, says he is convinced parents of non-English-speaking children will overwhelmingly choose English-only instruction over native-language instruction. ``I say let's open up the marketplace of ideas, and may the best program win,'' declares Mr. Hill.

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