November 20, 1998


Federal Nails on the Bilingual Education Coffin?

By Domenico Maceri, PhD

Miguel is an eight-year old Mexican kid who speaks no English, having just arrived from Mexico. He is in the same third grade class as Scott, who has spoken English all his life. Because of Proposition 227, which California voters approved last June, Miguel will be placed in an "immersion" English class for one year, at the end of which he is supposed to compete with Scott.

Recently the House passed the English Fluency Act which, in most states, would give Miguel two years to learn English. According to the bill, if Miguel does not demonstrate "mastery" of the English language in two years of a bilingual education program, federal funds would be cut from his school.

Proposition 227 and the English Fluency Act are not identical legislation. However, both suggest that foreign kids can learn English very quickly and in a short time be able to compete with kids who have spoken English all their lives.

The fact is that for foreign kids to catch up with their American counterparts takes much longer than Ron Unz, co-author of Proposition 227, and Frank Riggs, author of the House bill realize. Learning school subjects is difficult enough for American kids who already speak English. For kids who don't know English, the same task can be overwhelming.

Although some foreign born children compete successfully with native-born Americans, most don't. The reason for this is obvious and has nothing to do with intelligence. I have been teaching foreign languages for more than twenty years and have never met an individual who at the end of one year-immersion or no immersion- could compete with native speakers. As Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland stated, most members of Congress would not be able to learn Russian or Greek in two years. How dare they ask children to do what they could not?

How long does it take to learn a new language? Researchers at George Mason University found that five to six years are necessary.

But even assuming that in one year kids will learn enough English to compete with native-born kids, as Proposition 227 claims, these kids will be one year behind in their school subjects because of the year spent in the "immersion." Will they catch up? The answer points to the negative for many reasons.

Many factors influence educational success. Chief among these are family income, the parents' education, the quality of instruction in schools, and self-esteem. On all these scores immigrant children are at a disadvantage.

Their parents are, in general, poor and do not know English very well. They don't understand the American system and when kids bring home papers or assignments they can provide little or no help. In parent-teacher conferences where teachers cannot communicate with parents, kids again suffer.

Most responsible parents are concerned about the stress their children are under if they have to move to a new school. We know that even the normal transitions from elementary to middle school, and middle to high school require a little extra hand holding. Yet, few worry about the stress level of foreign-born kids, who not only find themselves in a new school, but in a new language, and new culture.

In essence, foreign born kids are very much at a disadvantage in American schools when compared to native-born kids. Bilingual education tried to even the playing field for these kids. Its elimination in California was a tragedy, for although it was not a perfect system, bilingual education tried to give kids a chance and meet them at their level rather than the level we would like them to be.

Proposition 227, approved by California voters amounted to a very simplistic vote: English-yes-Spanish-no. The English Fluency Act, passed by the House of Representatives, is an attempt to stick federal nails on the bilingual education coffin. However, the bill, which was passed largely along party lines, faces an uncertain future in the Senate and will probably be vetoed by President Clinton. Sometimes gridlock is very beneficial.

Domenico Maceri ( teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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