BILINGUAL EDUCATION: NINETY QUESTIONS, NINETY ANSWERS

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79 Questions, 79 Answers
Stephen Krashen
1. What are the goals of bilingual education?
There are two distinct goals of bilingual education. The first is the development of
academic English and academic success, the second is the development of the heritage
language (HL). Both are worthwhile goals, and both are accomplished in quality
bilingual education programs for the same price. Most of the debate has been about the
first goal.
In terms of the first goal, we can define bilingual education as the use of the student’s
first language to accelerate second language development.
2. What is “academic language”?
Academic language is the language of school, business, politics, science, journalism, etc.
In school, it is the ability to read and understand story problems, write book reports, and
read complex social studies texts.
Academic language is different from “conversational” or “social” language, the everyday
language of the playground. Children may be able to pick up conversational language
fairly quickly, in a year or two, but it takes much longer to acquire academic language. If
a child has developed high levels of academic language in the first language, it is much
easier to develop it in the second language. Someone who is used to reading academic
texts in one language will find it easier to read similar texts in other languages, compared
to someone without this experience.
The conversational-academic language distinction was made by Prof. Jim Cummins of
the University of Toronto to explain why some children sound fluent in the second
language but still have problems in school; they have acquired conversational language
but not academic language.
3. Aren’t bilingual programs mostly concerned with maintaining the ethnic culture
of the family?
No. While some bilingual programs encourage development of the heritage language
after English has been mastered, the major goal is the rapid acquisition of English and
mastery of academic subjects.
4. How can teaching children using their first language help them acquire the
second language?
One would think that the more English children hear and read, the faster they will acquire
it. This is not so. When we give children a good education in their first language, they
get two things: knowledge and literacy. Both the knowledge they develop in the first
language and the literacy they develop in their first language help English language
development enormously. The effect is indirect, but powerful.
5. How does subject matter knowledge help English language development?
The knowledge you learn using your first language makes what you hear and read in
English much more comprehensible. This results in more language acquisition and more
learning in general. The positive effects of background knowledge on language
acquisition and on learning in general have been thoroughly documented, and the concept
makes common sense.
Consider the hypothetical case of a limited English proficient high school student
enrolled in a history class, a student with clear limitations in English. But let us assume
that she knows something about history. She has studied history extensively in her own
language: She knows about World Wars I and II, knows where Istanbul, Addis Ababa,
Copenhagen and Bangkok are, knows something about Louis XIV, Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, and Fidel Castro. Clearly, this student will do well, possibly even better than
many native speakers. Thanks to the background knowledge she developed through her
first language, history in English will be more comprehensible.
6. How does developing literacy in the first language help?
Developing literacy in the first language is a shortcut to English literacy. A simple threestep argument explains why:
1) We learn to read by understanding what is on the page.
2) If (1) is true, it is easier to learn to read if you understand the language.
3) Once you can read, you can read. When you are literate in one language, it is much
easier to develop literacy in another. Literacy transfers across languages.
7. How do we know that literacy transfers across languages?
Several ways:
(1) We know that the process of reading is similar in different languages; readers of
different languages use the same strategies while reading.
(2) We know that learning to read happens similarly in different languages. For example,
vocabulary development occurs in the same way in Chinese and English, with readers
picking up a bit of the meaning of the new word each time they see it in print in a
meaningful context.
(3) We know that those with more reading competence in the first language learn to read
better in the second language. The evidence comes from correlational studies and case
histories.
8. Isn’t the transfer of reading ability limited to cases where the alphabets are the
same?
No. Transfer has been shown to occur from Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese
to English, and from Turkish to Dutch. In fact, whenever researchers have looked for
evidence of transfer, they have found it.
9. How can transfer occur when alphabets are different? Just because someone can
read in English does not mean they can immediately start to read in Chinese.
The point is that anyone literate in any language will find learning to read in another
language easier than someone not literate in the first language. A literate speaker of
Chinese will have an easier time learning to read English than an illiterate speaker of
Chinese. The facilitating effect of first language literacy may not be immediate.
10. Transfer sounds fine in the research, but does it really happen?
Here is an example, one of many: Lorraine Ruiz taught a second grade class of Spanish
speakers in the Alum Rock School District in California, all LEP or non English
speakers. The children had aural comprehensible input in English, but much of the
curriculum was in Spanish and reading was taught in Spanish. Ms. Ruiz had a classroom
library with books both in English and Spanish. At the beginning of the year, the children
could not read the English books, but by the end of the year they could. The children
themselves were amazed. One child asked Mrs. Ruiz, "When did you teach us to read in
English?" The explanation is that Ms. Ruiz helped them learn to read in Spanish, and
once you can read, you can read. This example is not an isolated one.
11. Are children in bilingual programs forbidden to read in English until they
master reading in their first language?
No. There is no reason to prevent children from reading in English until they reach a
certain level in the primary language. The key concept is comprehensibility. Children
can be encouraged to read in English as soon as texts can be made comprehensible.
Reading in the first language will make this happen sooner, because literacy transfers
across languages, and the concepts children learn through reading in their first language
will make English texts more comprehensible.
12. What are the components of a well-designed bilingual program?
1. Providing subject instruction in the first language, without translation. This builds
subject matter knowledge, which makes input in English more comprehensible.
2. Developing literacy in the first language, which transfers to the second language and
provides a short cut to English literacy.
3. Providing comprehensible input in English.
13. What is Second Language Instructional Competence (SLIC)?
SLIC is the competence necessary to understand instruction in a second language. SLIC
will vary according to the subject matter and the student’s background knowledge. For
young children, for example, mathematics does not require as much SLIC as social
studies does, because mathematics is easier to contextualize and social studies contains
abstract concepts that are bard to clarify with visuals.
14. What is “early exit bilingual education”?
This is a program in which children are “exited” or leave the program too early, before
second language input in the mainstream will be comprehensible, that is, before they
reach Second Language Instructional Competence.
15. What is “late exit” bilingual education”?
In a late exit bilingual education program, the child can understand instruction in English
in the mainstream when exited from the bilingual program.
16. Doesn’t early exit promote more rapid English language development?
No, just the opposite. It slows down the acquisition of English because it exposes the
child to incomprehensible input. We require comprehensible input, input we understand,
in order to acquire language.
17. Does “exiting” a bilingual program mean that all instruction is always in
English?
No. Some schools offer continuing instruction in the first language even after the child is
ready for instruction in all-English classrooms. This is called “heritage language
development” and is beneficial for the child and society. Programs that provide heritage
language development are sometimes called “developmental bilingual” programs.
18. What is sheltered subject matter teaching?
Sheltered subject matter teaching is a form of content-based language teaching designed
for intermediate level language students.
In sheltered classes, students are taught subject matter through the medium of the second
language, in a comprehensible way. The focus of the class is on subject matter, not
language. For example, limited English proficient students in a sheltered math class
should all be intermediate level ESL students. The class is taught in English, and students
are tested on math, not English.
19. Does sheltered subject matter teaching work?
Studies done with intermediate, literate foreign language students consistently show that
sheltered subject matter teaching works. Students in these classes acquire as much or
more language as those in regular intermediate classes and learn impressive amounts of
subject matter at the same time. The kind of language they acquire, moreover, is
“academic language,” the kind needed for school success.
20. Is sheltered subject matter teaching used in bilingual programs?
Yes, it is used as a bridge between instruction done in the primary language and the
mainstream. A limited English proficient student will first have math in the primary
language, then in a sheltered class, and then in the mainstream. This use of the sheltered
classes makes sure that instruction is comprehensible at all times, and helps prepare the
child for the mainstream.
21. Don’t bilingual programs teach only in the first language?
No. Some critics of bilingual education have claimed that bilingual education requires
that children spend five to seven years mastering their native language before they can
learn English. This is not correct. In properly organized bilingual programs, English is
introduced immediately. ESL begins from the first day, and subjects are taught in
English as soon as they can be made comprehensible. Research confirms that English is
not delayed in bilingual education. According to one study of bilingual programs, by the
time children are in grade 3, 75% of their subject matter is in English, and it is 90% by
grade 5. Even in late-exit programs, 50% of the day is in English by grade five.
22. Why wait? Why not teach all subjects in English from the very first day?
Because they would not be comprehensible, even when presented in sheltered classes. It
is nearly impossible to teach complex subject matter in a language students do not
understand. A more efficient strategy is to give beginning students high quality ESL to
build English competence, and high quality subject matter teaching in the primary
language. When subject matter in English is introduced after children have some English
and some subject matter knowledge, it is much more comprehensible and progress is
faster.
If you were going to France to study computers, and knew no French and knew nothing
about computers, it would make sense to first develop some knowledge of French and, at
the same time, learn something about computers in English. It would be a bad idea to
plunge into computer
science classes in French right away.
THE RESEARCH CONTROVERSY
23. What does the research say about the effectiveness of bilingual education?
When well-designed bilingual programs are compared to all-second language
alternatives, children in bilingual programs acquire the second language as well or better.
Nearly every scholar who has reviewed the scientific research has come to this
conclusion.
24. How are these studies done?
They are scientific experiments, in which subjects are similar and treatments are similar
except for the use of the first language.
25. Is bilingual education done in other countries?
Yes. Bilingual programs that help children acquire the language of the country exist in
Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Australia, Denmark, and Sweden,
In addition, many countries in the European Economic Community (EEC) provide
instruction in minority languages, such as Basque, Catalan, Irish, Welsh, and Frisian. No
member of the EEC has passed the equivalent of California’s Proposition 227 or similar
anti-bilingual education initiatives.
26. Has bilingual education worked in other countries?
Yes. Research confirms that bilingual education programs in other countries are
successful. Similar to research results in the United States, studies show that children in
these programs acquire the language of the country at least as quickly as children in
"immersion" programs and often acquire it faster.
27. What happens to graduates of bilingual programs?
Several studies confirm that those who completed bilingual programs do well. Of course,
critics may argue that these are the survivors, the gifted or otherwise exceptional few who
survived despite bilingual education. But the reports of such “survivors” are very
consistent and include substantial numbers of children; we are not simply dealing with a
handful of students. They demonstrate, at a minimum, that bilingual education is not a
pathway to failure.
28. What is “immersion”?
The term “immersion” can mean one of several approaches:
1. Doing nothing, or submersion (sink or swim).
2. Providing comprehensible subject matter instruction in the second language, with little
or no first language help (“structured immersion” is one version of this; it may or may not
include some help in the child’s first language).
3. Bilingual education as done in North America for language majority children acquiring
a second language (usually Spanish in the US or French in the US and Canada).
Sometimes referred to as “Canadian immersion,” these programs are really forms of
bilingual education, as they provide both subject matter teaching and literacy in the
primary language.
29. Don’t studies show immersion to be better than bilingual education?
If by immersion we mean “structured immersion” (see previous question), the answer is
no. The only report claiming this is by Rossell and Baker (1996). Among the
methodological errors were these:
1. Programs used were inaccurately described. In some cases, programs labeled
“immersion” or “submersion” were actually bilingual education. In several other cases,
investigators provided little or no description of the bilingual program Some kinds of
bilingual education are better than others.
2. Several comparisons were really comparisons of different versions of Canadian
immersion. In other words, they were comparisons of different forms of bilingual
education. (see “What is immersion?” above).
3. Many successful programs were excluded from the analysis because pretests were not
used, but there is no reason to assume that pretest differences existed. Some comparisons
that Rossell and Baker included should have been excluded, as they violated their own
criteria for inclusion.
4. Some comparisons were inaccurately reported.
5. Some studies included a very small number of children.
30. Wasn’t “immersion” shown to be superior to bilingual education in El Paso,
Texas?
No. The program labeled “immersion” was a version of bilingual education. Children had
60 to 90 minutes per day of instruction in their primary language.
31. Wasn’t immersion shown to be superior to bilingual education in McAllen,
Texas?
No, The program labeled “immersion” was a version of bilingual education. Children had
significant amounts of instruction in Spanish reading. The goal of the program, according
to the district, was biliteracy. Test scores were only available for kindergarten and first
grade.
32. Is there evidence that social class (poverty) matters?
There is no question that socio-economic status (wealth, in other words) is a strong
predictor of school performance. High socio-economic class means higher redesignation
rates (exiting from special programs into the “mainstream”) and much faster development
of English, regardless of the measure used and regardless of whether bilingual education
is available; for one of the groups studied by Hakuta, Butler, and Witt, by grade five 75%
of the children in the highest SES group were reclassified as English proficient, but only
40% of the lowest SES group had reached this level.
33. Why does social class have this effect?
Wealth provides “de facto” bilingual education: Children who come from higher SES
families have had superior education in the primary language before immigration. Even
for those who came early, or were born in the host country, there are profound
advantages, including educated caregivers who can provide help in the primary language,
tutoring, and more access to print, both at home and in the form of better school and
public libraries, in addition to the more obvious advantages of wealth (creature comforts).
SUCCESS WITHOUT BILINGUAL EDUCATION?
34. Don’t many immigrant children do well in school without bilingual education?
Those who succeed in school without bilingual education often had a good background in
their first language, before they came to the US. They had “de facto” bilingual education
in their home country.
Fernando de la Pena wrote about his experiences in a book published by US English. He
came to the US at age nine with no English competence and did well. But he had been in
the fifth grade in Mexico in a good school system and was thus literate in Spanish and
knew subject matter. When he started school in the US, he was put in grade 3! His
superior knowledge of subject matter helped make the English he heard more
comprehensible.
Cases like this one are very different from many of the children we see in school today,
children of poverty without a good education in their first language, not at grade level
when they arrive, and without high levels of first language literacy.
Those who did well who started at kindergarten often had the benefit of an Englishspeaking neighborhood, books in English, and help in the first language at home. Also,
some knew at least some English before they arrived at school.
The most famous case of this kind is Richard Rodriguez, the author of Hunger of
Memory. Rodriguez was the only Spanish-speaking child in his class in elementary
school, and became a voracious reader, a route not available to many limited English
proficient children because of lack of access to books.
35. Weren’t many immigrants financially successful without bilingual education?
It is frequently argued that many immigrants who arrived in the United States in the first
part of the twentieth century succeeded economically without bilingual education. It is
established, however, that immigrants did not do all that well in school during this time.
In fact, very few native speakers of English did well in school in those days: In 1910,
only 13.5% of the total population had graduated high school; today that figure is around
83%.
If immigrants did so poorly in school, how did they succeed economically? In the first
part of the 20th century, education was not a prerequisite to economic success. It is now.
Years ago, there was work in manufacturing and agriculture that did not require high
school or college. Today, nearly all work that leads to a decent living requires education:
US government figures show that those who are not high school graduates earn under the
poverty level, on the average. As Dennis Parker has stated it, the $15-20/hour job in the
steel mill has been replaced by the minimum wage job at the hamburger stand.
THE ANTI-BILINGUAL EDUCATION INITIATIVES
36. What was in Proposition 227?
California’s Proposition 227 requires all instruction to be in English and limits special
English classes to only one school year: After one year (180 school days), children are
expected to know enough English to do school work in regular classrooms. 227 holds
teachers financially responsible if they use excessive amounts of the first language in
class, but does not tell us how much is "too much." Bilingual education is still possible
but requires special waivers.
37. Didn't LA students immediately “take to immersion” according to the LA
Times?
That’s what the headline said (January 13, 1999), but that’s not what the article said.
About five months after 227 was implemented, the reporter conducted 13 (!) interviews
in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and concluded that children were picking up
“verbal English at a surprising rate” but also reported that there were concerns that
children were falling behind in their studies; many teachers were questioning “whether
most of the youngsters have acquired the language skills necessary to comprehend math,
reading or history lessons in English.” One teacher noted that children were picking up
“social English,” not academic English, that new concepts still had to be presented in the
primary language, and that “we won’t have as many readers in our class as we did last
year” (under bilingual education). Other teachers said that they had to “water down” core
subjects.
This is just what one would expect would happen. Children pick up conversational
language at more or less the same rate with any kind of program. (No comparison was
made with conversational English spoken by children in bilingual programs.) The
challenge is to help them develop what Cummins calls “academic language,” the
language of school. According to the article, there were problems in this domain.
Apparently, the headline writer did not read this far into the article.
38. Don’t standardized tests show that English immersion works?
Standardized test scores did indeed go up after 227 passed, but 227 did not deserve the
credit. Test scores improved for all children, including those in bilingual programs and
those who were never in bilingual programs. Test scores typically appear to be low the
first time a new standardized test is given, and then go up each year, as teachers and
students become more familiar with the test. The new SAT9 was introduced at the same
time 227 became law.
Prof. Kenji Hakuta and his associates of Stanford University have reported that scores
rose in districts that kept bilingual education and scores rose in districts that never did
bilingual education. A subsequent study confirmed that children in schools that kept
bilingual education and those in schools that dropped bilingual education after 227 passed
made nearly identical gains on standardized tests, and a recent and widely publicized
report from the American Institutes for Research and West Ed also found that
dismantling bilingual education did not result in any improvement in the English
language of minority children in California.
There is no scientific evidence linking increases in test scores to dropping bilingual
education.
39. Isn’t it easy for a parent to get a waiver in California under Prop 227?
Getting a waiver is worse than dealing with an HMO. Here is what a parent must do: The
parent must physically come to the school to apply, fill out a written application, and
reapply each year. Unless the child is over ten, “special needs” must be demonstrated in
writing. The application must be approved by the superintendent, the local board, and the
state board. The application can be rejected without the parent being given any means of
appeal. No standards have been set up for the approval of waiver petitions, and it can be
rejected at any stage. If the application is approved, 19 more must be approved at that
grade level to set up bilingual education, or the child must be transferred to another
school.
40. Why did the anti-bilingual education initiatives pass?
People thought they were voting for English. The LA Times asked those who said they
would vote for Proposition 227 why they supported it. 63% said it was because English
was so important. Very few, less than 10%, mentioned the superiority of immersion or
the failure of bilingual education. The wording of the measure on the ballot and on the
polls encouraged this interpretation. In one poll, when voters were told what was really in
227 (dismantling many successful programs, submersion after one year, teachers held
financially responsible if 227 policy violated, only 60 days to conform to the new policy),
only 15% said they would support it.
PUBLIC OPINION
41. Don’t polls show that the public strongly supports English language
development?
Yes, and so do supporters of bilingual education. The fact that the public supports
English is evidence for bilingual education, not against it, because bilingual education
accelerates English language development.
42. Does the public understand bilingual education?
Yes and no.
Yes, in that the public finds the principles underlying bilingual education to be
reasonable. Studies done by Fay Shin and others show that most people agree that
learning subject matter in the first language helps make English instruction more
comprehensible, and that developing literacy in the first language speeds up literacy
development in the second language.
No, in that when people are asked if they support bilingual education, responses are
increasingly negative.
43.Can bilingual education be explained to the public?
Yes. People already agree with the underlying ideas, and the research supporting
bilingual education is very strong. The public simply needs to be informed that the
reasonable underlying principles are indeed the basis for bilingual education and the fact
that there is strong research support.
44. Has the media presented both sides fairly?
No. McQuillan and Tse (1996) reviewed publications appearing between 1984 and 1994,
and reported that 87% of academic publications supported bilingual education, but
newspaper and magazine articles tended to be anti-bilingual education, with only 45%
supporting bilingual education. In addition, less than half of the opinion articles about
bilingual education referred to educational research. One wonders what public support
would look like if bilingual education were covered more accurately in the press.
45. Are opponents of bilingual education simply racist?
Most are not. According to one study, variables such as anti-immigrant attitudes, and
“inegalitarian values” combined explained only 26% of the opposition to bilingual
education.
DROPOUTS (School Completion)
46. Isn’t the dropout rate among Hispanic students very high?
Yes. The dropout rate for Hispanics in general is high compared to other groups. But
these figures include many who never enrolled in school, such as foreign-born
immigrants who came to the US to work. This is the case for more than half of the
foreign-born “dropouts.”
For example, in 2003, about 10% of the 16 through 24 year old population were not
enrolled in high school and had not earned a high school diploma or GED, a decline from
14.6% in 1972. For Hispanics ages 16 through 24, 23.5% were not in school and had not
graduated. But for those Hispanics born in the United States, only 12% were in this
category, a figure only slightly higher than the national norm.
In addition, the overall Hispanic dropout rate has declined considerably. In 1988, it was
36%.
47. Is bilingual education the cause of dropping out?
Because Hispanics have a high dropout rate, and because Hispanics constitute the largest
percentage of students in bilingual programs, some have concluded that bilingual
education must be the cause of dropping out.
But a minority of Hispanic students are in bilingual programs. In California, for example,
even before Proposition 227 passed, only 15% of Hispanic students were in bilingual
education. In fact, only about half were limited English proficient. Since the dropout rate
applies to all Hispanic students, we can conclude that most of those who dropped out in
those years were not in bilingual education.
Herman Curiel and his associates at the University of Oklahoma reported that students in
bilingual programs drop out significantly less than similar students not in bilingual
education. Bilingual education appears to be part of the cure for dropping out, not the
cause.
48. Why do more Hispanic students drop out?
In general, students in wealthier families drop out less, those who have been the US
longer and who live in a more print-rich environment drop out less, those who live with
both parents drop out less, those whose parents monitor schoolwork drop out less, and
those who do not become teen parents drop out less.
These factors appear to be responsible for much if not all of the differences in dropout
rates among different groups: About 40% of Hispanic students live in poverty, compared
to 15% of white non-Hispanic students, and only 68% live with both parents, compared
to 81% of non-white Hispanic students.
When researchers control for these factors, there is little or no difference in dropout rates
between Hispanics and other groups.
Those who report lower levels of English competence drop out more. This an for
bilingual education, because students in well-designed bilingual education has a positive
effect on English language development.
49. Does speaking Spanish at home increase the odds of dropping out?
No. According to a US Government study there is no significant difference in dropout
rates between Hispanic young adults who speak English at home and those who speak
Spanish at home.
IS BILINGUALISM BAD?
50. Doesn’t bilingualism lead to serious national problems?
No. There are many monolingual countries that have serious problems and many
multilingual countries that are relatively problem-free. Joshua Fishman analyzed the
impact of 230 possible predictors of civil strife and economic well-being in 170
countries. His results strongly suggest that multilingualism is not to blame for political or
economic problems.
STARTING ENGLISH EARLY
51. Why delay English? Isn’t it true that the older you are, the harder it is to learn
another language?
In early stages, older children make faster progress in second language acquisition than
younger children; also, adults are typically faster than children.
But this only holds for early stages. In the long run, those who begin second language
acquisition as children do better than those who begin as adults. Children catch up.
Even though older children progress faster in English, the demands of the curriculum are
much greater: There is more to learn. Thus may take them longer to reach grade level.
One cannot shorten the process by removing children from bilingual education: Without
bilingual education, it usually takes longer.
52. How long does it take to acquire conversational English?
Some children can hold a simple conversation in English after a few months, but it
generally takes two to four years before second language acquirers do as well as native
speakers in oral language.
53. How long does it take to acquire academic language?
It can take a long time before children reach the native speaker level in academic
language, usually between five to eight years. The “native speaker” level means
performing as well as the average native speaker of English on tests of reading
comprehension, at the 50th percentile, a demanding level that, of course, half of all native
speakers do not reach.
Academic language proficiency is a central aspect of redesignation, or reclassification as
fluent English proficient. The criteria used for reclassification varies from district to
district, but can often be very high, requiring test performance at the 36th percentile,
which only 36% of native speakers reach. After five years, about 30% of English learners
reach this level.
The important question is how long it takes to reach Second Language Instructional
Competence, the level of English required to understand subject matter instruction
presented in English. There have been no formal studies investigating this, but it is clear
that this level can be attained in a far shorter time than is required for redesignation.
HERITAGE LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
54. Why do immigrant families resist English?
They aren’t refusing to learn English.
According to the most recent census, about 1% of the population cannot speak English,
and only 7% of those who speak another language at home cannot speak English.
These figures include newcomers. Spanish speakers born in the US report that they
speak, read and write English better than they do Spanish by the time they finish high
school. One does, of course, occasionally run into immigrants who don’t speak English.
These are usually new arrivals, or those who have not been able to find the time or
opportunity to acquire English.
In 1985 Rand Corporation researchers concluded that that over 90% of MexicanAmericans born in the US said they are proficient in English, and that "the transition to
English begins almost immediately and proceeds very rapidly."
Rather than resisting English, immigrant families are losing their first language. The
heritage language is weaker in the second generation and usually gone by the third
generation.
55. Should we be concerned about the child’s first language after English is
mastered?
Yes. Heritage Language development helps both the child (cognitive and practical
advantages) and society.
56. What are the cognitive advantages of bilingualism? Does bilingualism make you
smarter?
Bilinguals outperform monolinguals on some tests of language and nonverbal
intelligence, including the ability to think about language abstractly (“meta-linguistics
awareness”) and one kind of creativity, “divergent thinking.”
Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues have done studies showing that bilinguals are better
than monolinguals at solving problems that require ignoring irrelevant information and
focus just on important information and have superior “working memories,” that is, they
are better at keeping information in their memories while solving a problem. These are
both abilities that decline in older people, but Bialystok and colleagues have shown that
bilinguals show less of a decline; bilingualism, in other words, might reduce some of the
negative effects of aging.
Bilinguals also do slightly better in school. Fernandez and Nielsen (1986) concluded that
“proficiency in Spanish ... has a positive effect on achievement” (p. 60). In their study of
Hispanic high school seniors, they reported that those with exposure to Spanish did
slightly better than monolingual Hispanics in English reading and had higher educational
expectations (expected to complete more years of schooling).
57. What are the practical advantages of heritage language development?
Tienda and Neidert (1984) analyzed predictors of occupational status among Hispanic
men in the labor force in 1975, ages 18-64: English-dominant bilinguals were slightly
better off than those who spoke only English. This language variable was not anywhere
near as strong as some other predictors, such as education and English language ability,
but the analysis confirmed that bilingualism is not harmful and can be beneficial.
Of course bilingualism is essential in some areas. The recent push in the US for
developing competent speakers of languages considered important for national security
has paid little attention to the potential of heritage language speakers.
Business also profits from bilingualism: Those experienced in international trade tell us
that if you want to buy, you can easily do it in your own language, but if you want to sell,
it is a good idea to know your customer’s language:
“ … the most useful international language in the world is not necessarily English, but
rather it is the language of your client” (J. Kolbert).
58. How does heritage language development impact the family?
In a series of studies of second generation Korean HL speakers who sought to improve
their Korean language competence, Grace Cho reported that many cited the need to
improve communication with members of the older generation, confirming observations
made by Lily Wong-Fillmore. A remark by one of Cho's subjects, Harris, is unfortunately
typical:
"It is frustrating when I'm speaking to my parents and can't fully comprehend what we're
trying to say to each other. I hate it when I eat dinner with my parents that they always
carry on their own conversation that I can only half understand. Yet, they complain that
we don't eat as a family enough. I hate having something to say, but not being able to say
it."
As one would expect, the problem is more serious when communication is with
grandparents. Another of Cho's subjects, Jessica, explained:
"The situation in which I most desperately want to speak Korean is when I am with my
grandmother. Although we manage to express ourselves through simple words, I can't
help but feel frustrated when it comes to talking with my grandmother. I want to ask her
so many things: how things were, what has changed, what has not, and such. I want to
ask her about our family history and world history. I want to talk to her instead of just
'parroting' phrases my mother tells me."
59. Why do heritage languages disappear so quickly?
There are (at least) three reasons heritage languages disappear quickly, that is, why
children of immigrants may not acquire the heritage language, or reach high levels of
competence. The first, and most obvious, is lack of input. Studies show that heritage
language competence is higher when parents use the heritage language more at home,
but if one only hears the language from one’s parents, there will be a limit as to how far
one can progress. But there are other important factors: “ethnic ambivalence” a stage
some children go through in which they are reluctant to use the heritage language, and a
phenomenon called “language shyness.”
60. What is “Ethnic avoidance”?
Attitudes toward the heritage language are quite positive in the elementary and middle
school years, but this can change. Lucy Tse notes that some language minority group
members go through a stage in which the desire to integrate into the target culture is so
strong that there is apathy toward or even rejection of the heritage culture and language.
Tse refers to this stage as Ethnic Ambivalence or Ethnic Evasion. Typically, this stage
occurs during childhood and adolescence, and may extend into adulthood. Those in this
stage have little interest in the heritage language, and may even avoid using it:
"Maria Shao recounted how her knowledge of Chinese was a source of shame. She
recalled that when she was in elementary school, 'if I had friends over, I purposely spoke
English to my parents. Normally, we only spoke Chinese at home. Because of the
presence of a non-Chinese, I used to purposely speak English.'" (Tse, 1998, p. 21).
61. What is “language shyness”?
Some imperfect HL speakers (often a younger sibling) report that their efforts to speak
the heritage language are met with correction and even ridicule by more competent HL
speakers, a reaction that discourages the use of the HL, and thus results in less input and
even less competence. Heritage Language speakers appear to have very high standards
for themselves and others.
62. How can HL speakers improve their competence in the HL?
Language acquisition theory tells us that we acquire language when we understand it. If
this is true, "comprehensible input," messages we understand, will be the way to improve
HL's as well. Reading is an excellent source of comprehensible input, and there is good
evidence that HL can improve a great deal through pleasure reading in the HL.
IMPROVING BILINGUAL EDUCATION
63. How can bilingual education be improved?
Most essential is to improve the print environment. The number of books per child in
elementary school libraries is a significant and strong predictor of reading scores. In the
US, there are 18 books per child in school libraries, on the average. In the bilingual
schools she studied, Sandra Pucci found that there was only one book per child in the
school library in the first language.
Children in bilingual programs are, in addition, often children who live in high-poverty
neighborhoods, which means they have access to fewer books in their public libraries,
fewer books at home, and have access to fewer bookstores. The book shortage extends to
English, as well as the first language.
Improving the print environment of children in bilingual education is the first priority.
64. Even if we provide lots of books, how can we be sure children will want to read
them?
Studies show that when interesting, comprehensible reading material is available, most
children will read. There is strong evidence that children like to read, contrary to popular
opinion.
65. Isn’t there a serious teacher shortage in bilingual education?
Yes, but this is no reason to eliminate bilingual education. If there were a shortage of
algebra teachers, would we stop teaching algebra?
OTHER ISSUES
66. Aren’t English-only children regularly misplaced and forced into bilingual
classes?
A few cases of misplacement have occurred, and have received tremendous publicity.
There is no evidence that this error is widespread.
67. English Learners score much lower on standardized tests than regular students
do. Doesn’t this show there is a serious problem?
English learners MUST score lower than fully English proficient students. Otherwise
they would not be classified as English learners. Most English learners have just begun
the process of acquiring English. When they improve enough, they are reclassified and
are no longer considered LEP.
Complaining that English learners score lower than fluent speakers is like pointing out
that patients in intensive care are sicker than those in the general wards of a hospital, and
then concluding that there is something wrong with intensive care.
68. “Fifty languages are spoken in the homes of my students, and why should we
offer instruction in one and leave out the 40-something others? It isn’t right, and it
isn’t fair.” Is bilingual education unfair?
The fairness argument against bilingual education assumes a competitive model for
school. If an approach is helpful for one group of children, it should not be used, because
it is not “fair” to the others. Adherence to this policy would eliminate all forms of
individualization. If a teacher discovers that some algebra students profit from a more
visual, hands-on explanation for a certain concept, but others do not, should this
explanation be withheld? Of course not.
School is not a competition, it is not a race. We need to do whatever we can to help all
children.
69. Don't children often languish in bilingual programs for many years, never
learning enough English to study in mainstream classes?
No they don't. According to a report from New York City, for children entering school at
kindergarten and grade 1, only 14% were still in bilingual education after six years.
From data provided by the State of Texas (2000), I have estimated that for those who
started at kindergarten, only 7% were still in bilingual education after grade 5.
What this means is that children develop Second Language Instructional Competence for
at least some subjects fairly quickly.
70. Why do we still see children in bilingual classes in the upper grades?
Most students in bilingual programs in upper grades are those who came to the US at an
older age. These late-comers face a daunting task: Many come with inadequate
preparation in their country of origin, and need to acquire English as well as assimilate
years of subject matter knowledge.
71. Why does the public have the impression that children languish in bilingual
programs?
This impression has been reinforced by inaccurate citations of the research. Several
scholars have noted that it may take quite a while for English learners to reach the 50th
percentile, and it may take a long time to be redesignated as fluent. But students reach
Second Language Instruction Competence much earlier, and are able to do regular classswork in English quite soon.
72. What are “two-way” bilingual programs?
73. What are “dual language” programs?
74. What is “dual immersion”?
It is easy to answer all of these questions at once. They all refer to the same kind of
program, one in which both fluent English speakers and English language acquirers are in
the same classroom, and are expected to acquire both languages.
In order to avoid confusion, I suggest that only the term “two-way” be used to refer to
this kind of program.
75. Aren’t two way programs the best?
There has been a great deal of excitement about these programs; claims have been made
that two- way has been shown to be the most effective form of bilingual education, and
the best possible program for language minority children in general. A review of studies
of two-way programs shows, however, that there is not yet strong evidence that they are
superior to other versions of bilingual education in terms of the development of academic
English for language minority children.
76. Doesn’t bilingual education cost more?
No, it costs about the same as most other programs. Some forms of ESL pullout and twoway are the most expensive because they require two teachers at the same time.
77. Isn’t research quality in bilingual education second –class?
Absolutely not. Jeff McQuillan has done a detailed analysis of research quality,
concluded that research quality in bilingual education is quite similar to the quality of
research in other areas of federally-funded research.
78. Aren’t there more immigrants than ever these days and more people in the US
who can’t speak English?
Yes there are, but this is due to an increased population and immigration. The percentage
of the population that does not speak English at all is very small, about one percent. In
1890, about three and half percent of the population could not speak English.
`
79. What is wrong with testing children in English on standardized tests as soon as
possible, as NCLB requires? Won’t it encourage them to learn English faster?
Won’t it encourage their parents to help them learn English? Won’t it force
teachers to work harder to teach them English?
No. First, every poll, interview, and case history ever done has confirmed that students
and their parents are deeply committed to acquiring English, and teachers are working
very hard to help English learners succeed.
Second, insisting that students be tested before they have ha a chance to acquire enough
English to get a meaningful score on the test is a waste of time and money and creates
needless frustration for students. The only ones who profit from it are the publishers who
produce and sell the tests.
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