Monday, September 29, 2008

Bilingualism- only an issue in the U.S. - Part II

Comments from NYT article on bilingualism.


It would be interesting to find out how classes are taught in Switzerland, which is tri-lingual.

— Posted by John


Our maid had a child within two months of my wife delivering our own second child. Five years later, we managed to get our maid’s child into the same public school to which our child went. But she got kicked out for misbehaving and sent to a local school near where our maid lived. Unfortunately, this was a school that mandated that Spanish to be used to teach the students. 13 years later, our child was headed to an elite college and our maid’s daughter was barely able to finish high school. Do I think that our son was brilliant and our maid’s daughter was stupid? No. But it’s very interesting that our maid’s daughter spoke English with a Spanish accent even though she was born and reared 100% in this country. I think back to the day a decade earlier that our maid cried to us that they were teaching her child in Spanish and that she wanted her to learn English in school so that she could do well in this country. To my limited experience, therefore, it’s a really bad idea to teach students who need to work and compete in English to depend upon Spanish.

— Posted by Gary

Speaking as someone who has taught ESL, using very different models in different high schools with different clientele, I am struck by how much the debate about the quantity of English in the class quickly devolves from a sensible search for the best strategy to an ideological war that produces some very silly teaching strategies. With a little common sense, we can quickly dispatch with some of the silliest of these extremes. For example, using the student’s second language when they first arrive makes sense only if the teacher has a homogeneous group and a basic grasp of the languages students bring into the room. I speak Spanish, and when I had a room full of Spanish speakers, I could use Spanish words to compare true and false cognates, to explain which rules are similar and which are different, etc. But when my classes were filled with students who spoke Chinese (I can hardly manage please and thank you without messing up the tones) this strategy was beyond me. Some folks worry that the use of any of the student’s first language is somehow unpatriotic or counter productive. To these folks I’d say, if you went to another country where you didn’t speak the language, as much as you’d want the instruction to center around the new language and move you to a conversational level, you’d certainly hope the initial instructions could be provided in your language, and that you could ask questions, in English, about how to express certain ideas. Those who favor the use of full bilingual teaching often seem to imply that the English-only folks are disrespectful or even downright racist. Though some of the people who espouse these views outside of education may be just that, people who have dedicated their lives to teaching kids (probably, hopefully) aren’t trying to hurt them because of some external political agenda. Because every class of students is different, and because every teacher’s grasp of foreign languages is different, I’m very glad to see that Senator Obama isn’t the type to jump on one example and try to force it on other schools. We teachers don;t benefit from that kind of armchair quarterbacking, and our kids certainly don’t, either. Instead, he’s voiced the principles that all ESL teachers should hold: Teach every child English, and do it in the way that works the best for that child. It’s not racist or evil to admit that our kids will need to be fully fluent in English to be successful in our society, and it’s not unpatriotic to admit that sometimes it can be helpful to use a little of the student’s first language to make that happen.

— Posted by Ben Gorman

Just one more thought to add: As someone who predominantly teaches literature to native speakers now, it will be very helpful to have a President Obama who shows my students just what a mastery of the English language can sound like, instead of someone like our current president, who shows them that they can butcher the language (and get mostly C’s in school), but if they have a father who is president and lack a conscience, they can still manage to become president, albeit to disastrous effect. I encourage you all to consider what it has been like, over the last seven years, to try to impart the simple values that education matters, that grammar matters, that using real words matters to high school students who see Dubya on the news each night.

— Posted by Ben Gorman

I 100% agree on your belief in the power of English immersion. That faith is based on my personal experience as an exchange student in France, the experience of my daughter as an exchange student in France, and the experience of a number of primarily Asian foreign exchange students who have lived with my family here in America over the years. One school year is enough time to become fluent in an immersion setting. This is especially true for young children who have the greatest facility in learning a new language.

— Posted by ANC

Obama’s not trivializing educational models. Reading the linked article, it’s clear that he was discussing isolationism, not pedagogical philosophy.

The elephant in the room is that most of the arguments for English-only education come not from education experts, but from jingoist laymen. Obama was trying to point out the dangers of that outlook; the world is shrinking rapidly, and kids (and adults) really are at an advantage when they can read and speak more than one language.

While the success of Sixth Street’s program is impressive, as a lay-reader of this article I wonder if there is sufficient evidence that English-only is the cause of their success. I’d be interested to read further research from education experts. (I.e., actual peer reviewed research, not politically motivated pronouncements from people or organizations with an agenda.) If it does turn out that English-only is the path to educational success, then that point needs to be clearly made and not mixed up with positions on isolationism and jingoism.

— Posted by Hopskotch

Greetings from a bilingualism researcher in Japan. Bilingual education is a field that should never be politicized, first of all. The bilingualism discipine has an established body of research and theory that proves elusive to sound bites, because the common sense of a given society is insufficient, and rigorous scientific analysis is necessary. Even when academics from other fields enter the debate, the gaps in their understanding are apparent, and it becomes a choice of which values are agreeable. For example, the use of the fine-sounding “immersion” in both articles should be corrected to “submersion,” which more realistically portrays what the learner experiences. “Immersion” in the bilingual education field always means that language majority students, like Japanese speakers in Japan or native English speakers in the U.S., learn regular school subjects 50% or more in a foreign language. There is no danger of majority students losing native language proficiency and being thus submerged, drowning in the unfamiliar, or losing linguistic ties with their families. One charter school cannot be generalized to the more common public school experience. It is true that the school staff members need precisely this correct knowledge of bilingualism that is surrounded by misconceptions and politics. Schools should at least be free to act on their best knowledge and staff abilities. Being against bilingual education is often a politically motivated cutting off of informed choices. Is it not absurd that high school students are struggling to start to learn Spanish and other languages for future international trade and communication while the native languages of immigrants are left to rot along with their cognitive abilities? Sweden manages to teach children in a hundred native languages, and Europeans are generally multilingual, because they prioritize international communication. My half-Japanese younger son was just realizing that a lot of foreigners don’t speak Japanese, and being bilingual in Japanese was another cool thing about his dad. How about the rest of you? There is plenty of unused space in growing and mature brains for multilingualism and multiculturalism if you weed out the propaganda.
(Prof.) Steve McCarty in Osaka

— Posted by Steve McCarty

I live in Iowa City, about twenty miles away from West Liberty, Iowa. There they have a bilingual school system that starts in kindergarten. They have a large Hispanic population and ten years ago they started a voluntary bilingual program. About 40% of the district starts the program in kindergarten. Not only do the Anglo kids who opt for the program learn both Spanish and English but the Hispanics kids learn proper Spanish, not street Spanish. The voluntary program continues to expand.

— Posted by tim

America is more isolated in the world than she should be, because of the lack of proficiency in a wide range of languages among her citizens. This is ironic given that immigration is the backbone of our nation.

Bilingual education, done properly, will result in students who have a very good mastery of English and who also have academic skills in their native tongue or their parents’. Whether or not their English is as perfect as it would be in a monolingual classroom, I think that there is substantial value in having educated bilinguals in our community, something that gets lost in strictly monolingual classrooms.

— Posted by Greg Shenaut

Look up look way up, yes that’s Canada up there, and guess what we are Bi lingual. Even if you live in Red Necked Alberta, home of the Calgary Stampede, Yahoo, if you want a trial in French no problem. Canada has spent Billions on making this a priority, to save the French Language is to save the French Culture. Personally I don’t give a s–t about French, but we got it, so if you need help being Bi-lingual, or you just want to study ways we have made teaching a second language to people from all, and I mean, all over the world, check it out.

Lary Waldman

— Posted by Lary Waldman
September 29th,
10:44 am

If the student who is “brand-new from Mexico” cannot be distinguished from others after 12 months, he or she is probably very adept at accessing peer assistance and hiding what he or she does not know. The difference may not be noticeable to the casual classroom visitor, but for this student academic language competence is years away.

— Posted by Catherine

Obviously Mr. Izumi hasn’t done his homework. He claims that support for bilingual education has a detrimental effect on English Learners’ academic achievement. He needs to read the report from the esteemed panel of experts convened by the federal government, the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children & Youth (August & Shanahan, 2006). The 12 member panel reviewed 292 scientifically sound research studies over 4 decades that show a clear advantage for English learners who acquire reading skills in their native language, which is accomplished through effective well-implemented bilingual education programs. Prof. Claude Goldenberg of Stanford University quantified the native-language reading advantage, pointing out that bilingual readers have a 12 to 15 percentile point advantage over their English learner peers taught exclusively in English. Izumi either ignores or doesn’t know the research findings on the effectiveness of bilingual instruction, which are among the most robust in educational research. Shame on Mr. Izumi for arguing a position that is totally unsupported by the authoritative educational research. His ignorance of the research findings exposes the ideology rather than the science that drives his opinion about bilingual education. Sen. Obama is right. There is every reason for him to support Latino voters’ rights (and the rights of all parents who want their children to have the bilingual advantage) to establish and choose bilingual education programs.

— Posted by Jill Kerper Mora

If the goal is to help the child, Dr. Izumi’s proposal is unquestionably best. The history of my country (USA) show Immersion in the local language works far faster and with clearer understanding than teaching in the language of the childs past. Immersion language instruction does however require Teachers with broader training in languages and culture than usually found in most local elementary schools in the USA. Principal Mikels is right on. On this one, Senator Obama is simply wrong.

— Posted by Axl

Research in the field of applied linguistics shows that English only education is not necessarily the best method for ESL students, despite the success of this method in one instance. Success in the language classroom encompasses far more than simply language proficiency and is determined by factors other than a high score on a test. The goal of any teacher or ESL program should be to foster the overall academic success and well-being of the students. Using an ESL student’s first language in the classroom enhances cognitive development, offers the student the chance to be fully literate in two languages and functionally bi-lingual (which opens many career possibilities for students in the future) and is beneficial for the student’s self-esteem and cultural identity. Academic articles such as “Reexamining English Only in the ESL Classroom” by E. Auerbach or “It’s not my Job” by Oxelson and Lee support the use of the heritage language in the ESL classroom. The success of a teaching method is highly dependent on the dynamic of the classroom. Because each classroom has students of different backgrounds and skill levels, it is impossible and foolish to say that any one method, such as English Only, will be successful for all ESL classrooms.

— Posted by Charlotte Peterson

My father remembers getting disciplined and shamed for speaking spanish at school; native american children were stolen and beaten when they spoke anything other than english. My father nearly lost his ability to speak spanish and entire generations of children ended up unable to speak to their parents and grandparents.

What people are afraid of is the isolationist and jingoistic tone (thank you Hopskotch) that frequently infiltrates the discussion on bilingualism. I think that kids should learn as many languages as possible. I’m proud of my little cousin who is three but can converse easily in english or spanish. It is important to teach children english BUT we HAVE to be careful that they don’t lose their native language. unfortunately, I don’t ever hear that concern for balance coming from anti-bilingual education folks.

— Posted by Bernardette

How many Presidents have been bi-lingual? How many member of the congress are bi-lingual?

Now, how many of them were required to study another language in both high school AND college?

I was just in Barcelona, the waiter at this cheap restaurant spoke three languages FLUENTLY.

I have America friends in Germany. Their two kids spoke three languages fluently by age 8: English, German and French. so did the other kids in neighborhood. They also knew some Italian.

John Kerry studied in Switzerland and downplayed his ability to speak another language. Apparently in America that makes one elitist.

Jackie Kennedy, on the other hand, was treated like a demi-goddess because she spoke French!!!! Imagine that? She took French in school and learned it! Isn’t that amazing??!

— Posted by Mark W

f teaching a child in Spanish makes her a maid, and teaching her in English makes her a lawyer, where to we get our bilingual lawyers for NAFTA cases, international negotiations, etc? I am able to be a historian of Latin America because I learned Spanish in high school. Should the children of Spanish-speaking parents also have to learn Spanish in high school if they want to be scholars or executives or diplomats or travel directors or container-ship captains or alpaca-fleece buyers or high-school Spanish teachers with native accents or any of the huge number of jobs where speaking and writing Spanish and English equally well is very important? Shouldn’t we try to preserve and improve all our immigrant kids’ native language skills as a way of helping connect the US to the rest of the world? I’ve seen this point made already here, and I’m glad.
Are some people really arguing that we should intentionally make kids lose their native language so that their English will be better? That knowing a foreign language is too dangerous for immigrants and should be restricted to the native born? I hope not, but it sounds like they might be.
Does anyone on the pro bilingual side really object to using immersion-style classes for teaching English (as opposed to refusing to give any tutoring or content help in a native language)?
Is there no middle ground? No program in which everything is taught in English, but there’s a class in formal Spanish or French or Hebrew or Portuguese or Cantonese or Korean or whatever foreign languages have enough students to justify the class? No program in which the English classes are designed to prepare students to study, say, history in English after a year, math in English after 2 years, geography in English after 3 years, earth science after 4 years, etc? I have advised college students doing poorly because their English classes hadn’t taught them the words they needed for calculus — I assume something similar happens in grade school, and could be fixed.

— Posted by Sam Martland

Too much of this discussion is either/or, black and white. I grew up in 4 foreign countries where, each time, and have lots of experience with language learning (and being thrown into new environments without much warning as a child). Immersion is great, but children also need some grounding in their own language. If parents are illiterate themselves or not providing Spanish-language reading material and complex language interactions at home, and the kid is in an immersion program, it will be detrimental to the kid.
Immersion is great for some subjects, but in that case children should also have a class in Spanish-language literature and culture, with practice in writing in Spanish. The non-Hispanics could be in a language-learning class of their own at that time.
I’m fluent in 4 languages, but my comprehension for complex content will always be fastest, easiest, and least effortful in English. If I had had to stop learning in English completely while I was growing up, I would have been an intellectually stunted and discouraged and bored person.

— Posted by cls

1 comment:

tia said...


My name is Tia and I'm an editor at, the debate website. Since we both cover immigration, I thought I'd drop you a note. I would've e-mailed you but I couldn't find an address.
See, we're currently having a discussion about whether Oregon should teach in only English. Measure 58 would make it mandatory for grade school children to learn in English-speaking classes. In this debate, Oregonians for Immigration Reform is challenging Parents & Teachers Know Better. You can see it here:
Although vetted experts are the ones doing the debating, anyone can contribute by choosing a side and posting comments about the experts' arguments.
Check it out and, if you have the time, let me know what you think at