Bilingual education, the use of two languages to educate children in a school, is very complex in its nature, aims, approaches, and outcomes. So much as its philosophy and practices vary across schools, regions, states, and nations, the controversial issues and arguments surrounding bilingual education have bewildered not only the general public but also bilingual researchers and practitioners, especially in the United States.
For example, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 encourages schools to abandon bilingual instruction, even though researchers have continuously demonstrated the value of bilingual programs for educating language-minority children. English-only advocates do not necessarily deny the effectiveness of bilingual education, but they view bilingual education or bilingualism as a threat to upholding national identity and a trigger to dividing people along ethnolinguistic lines; some of them even question whether anything was wrong with the old “sink or swim” approach that worked for earlier immigrants.
What the anti-bilingual backlash suggests is that many perceive bilingual education as a political issue rather than an educational one. However, unlike the general public’s perception, the academic field of bilingual education heavily rests on rigorous empirical research as well as in-depth studies and theories on language acquisition and academic development of bilingual children.
The Field of Bilingual Education
Bilingual education is a multidisciplinary field with various areas of research focusing largely on three areas: (1) a linguistics-based psychological and sociological foundation, (2) a micro-classroom pedagogy and macro-education, and (3) sociolinguistic perspectives.
The area of linguistics-based psychological and sociological foundations examines historical backgrounds and develops and integrates various theories. Researchers in this area emphasize the child’s bilingual and cognitive development and the effect that home and neighborhood play in this development; they investigate ways of interfacing bilingual education with minority language maintenance as well as language decay and language revival. The area involving micro-classroom pedagogy and macro-education deals with the effectiveness of bilingual programs of different types. Researchers examine essential features of bilingual classrooms that foster bilingualism and academic learning, investigate various teaching methodologies, and analyze different views of the overall value and purpose of bilingualism in conjunction with the nature of multiculturalism in society, schools, and classrooms. The sociolinguistic perspective concentrates on language planning and policy, raises critical issues reflecting diverse viewpoints about language minorities and bilingual education, investigates factors that generate disparity in preference between the assimilation of language minorities and language diversity, and examines language policies.
In dealing with the previously mentioned areas at the individual and societal levels, the field of bilingual education evolved into various types of bilingual programs. For example, a transitional bilingual program facilitates the transition from the language minority’s home language to the majority’s language. It is important to note that publicly funded U.S. bilingual education is, broadly speaking, transitional in that it aims essentially to move children into English-only instruction within 2 or 3 years. However, some schools offer a self-contained bilingual program in which a bilingual teacher provides instruction in two languages in all subject areas. Another interesting form of bilingual education is a two-way bilingual program (also named dual language program) in which the classes are evenly divided between students who speak English and those who speak another language. Such programs use two languages more or less equally in the curriculum so that both language-majority and language-minority children become bilingual and biliterate. Some ESL (English as a second language) programs are a form of bilingual education in that all the students speak the same language other than English and the teacher speaks the students’ home language yet little or no instruction is given in a language other than English.
Bilingual Education in the Political Arena
The field of bilingual education is academically well established, but its conception and operation closely inter-relate with immigration, societal changes, and political movements such as civil rights and equality of educational opportunity. Interestingly, U.S. society generally accepted language diversity, which was encouraged through religious institutions and newspapers, until World War I. In addition, bilingual education was practiced in some states (e.g., German-English schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin). However, when the United States entered World War I, a wave of patriotism led to a fear of foreigners, and aliens’ lack of English language skills became a source of social, political, and economic concern. Consequently, public and governmental pressure mounted to require all aliens to speak English and to become naturalized Americans, and for schools to conduct all classes in English.
Societal changes in the mid-20th century led to a more favorable public attitude toward bilingual education. For instance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a significant marker that symbolized the beginning of a less-negative attitude toward ethnic groups and their linguistic heritage. What may be a most noteworthy landmark in U.S. bilingual education in this period was a lawsuit brought on behalf of Chinese students against the San Francisco School District. This case, known as Lau v. Nichols, involved whether or not non-English-speaking students received equal educational opportunities when instructed in a language they could not understand. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, thereby expanding the language rights of limited-English-proficient students nationwide.
Society keeps changing, and language-related affairs and education assume different forms accordingly. Since the late 20th century, bilingual education has faced political adversity in varying degrees. Senator S. I. Hayakawa of California teamed up with other activists to found the advocacy group U.S. English in the early 1980s. This lobby headed the Official English offensive in Congress, state legislatures, and ballot campaigns. In 1996, the House of Representatives approved a bill designating English as the federal government’s sole language of official business, but the Senate did not act, ending the proposed legislation. In 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, mandating the dismantling of most bilingual education in the state. Voters in Arizona in 2000 and Massachusetts in 2002 also approved similar measures; in Colorado in 2002 voters rejected this initiative. More recently, the trend toward “holding schools accountable” through high-stakes testing, primarily in English as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, discourages schools from providing bilingual programs.
Sociopolitical and Educational Outlook
Although high-stakes testing has become a threat to bilingual education, it recasts a fundamental issue: the benefits of a bilingual program. Recently, advocates of bilingual education promoted two-way/dual bilingual programs by stressing their benefit. Unlike the transitional bilingual programs or self-contained bilingual programs initially developed and implemented for children with limited English language proficiency, the dual language program is designed for both language-minority and language-majority students. Each class would be equally composed of students who speak English and those who speak another language, as bilingual teachers aim to keep the two languages separate in their classroom. This dual language program is an interesting sociopolitical challenge in that bilingual education benefits students of the dominant language group as well as language-minority students.
However, interested observers note that the dual language program is limited in serving the school population “at large” because the non-English language in such a program may not be the language that the entire school population wants. For example, a school with many Spanish-speaking immigrants’ children may consider offering a Spanish-English dual language program, but parents who are not Spanish-speaking descendants may not want to choose Spanish as the second language for their children: They may want Italian, French, or Polish, for example, which may not be financially or logistically practical.
Bilingual education, then, involves multifaceted issues. Its continuity or discontinuity and the choice of program types are sociopolitical issues as well as educational ones. No doubt consistent efforts will attempt to educate the general public about the societal benefits of developing native-language skills of language-minority children. Yet, U.S. education policy, driven by high-stakes testing and accountability demands, will continue the trend toward all-English programs. Thus the challenges that schools, communities, states, and bilingual professionals face vis-a-vis bilingual education are enormous. The challenges include establishing criteria about programs and services to ensure language-minority children’s equal access to education, overcoming the mistaken perception that bilingual education threatens the existing social order, and expanding bilingual education to the dominant language group—the English-speaking children—to enhance their foreign language and inter-cultural communication skills.
- Baker, Colin. 2006. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 4th ed. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
- Crawford, James. 2000. At War with Diversity: US language policy in an Age of Anxiety. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
- Government Accountability Office. 2006. “No Child Left Behind Act: Assistance from Education Could Help States Better Measure Progress of Students with Limited English Proficiency.” GAO-06-815, July 26. Washington, DC. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-06-815).
- Krashen, Stephen and Grace McField. 2005. “What Works? Reviewing the Latest Evidence on Bilingual Education.” Language Learner 1(2):7-10, 34.
- Lessow-Hurley, Judith. 2004. The Foundations of Dual Language Instruction. White Plains, NY: Longman.
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