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Bilingual (Balderdash) Education On Ballot In 2 States…2nd Language Learners Can Lose Their 1st Languages

Bilingual Education On Ballot In Two States


October 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

ROCKTON, Mass., Oct. 2 – All across this Boston suburb, lawns are dotted with signs promoting candidates running in the election next month. But there is virtual silence on a ballot measure that could change the lives of more than 35,000 students in the state.

The measure, like a similar one in Colorado, would replace the bilingual education program in the public schools with one meant to teach children English in a matter of months instead of years.

Approval of the measures would mean two more victories for the English immersion movement, after California and Arizona approved similar initiatives in 1998 and 2000.

The ballot propositions in both states call for all non-English speakers to be placed in English immersion classes for one year before being moved to mainstream classrooms. The approach would replace a 30-year-old policy of bilingual education in which students are taught subjects like math, science and social studies in their native languages, most often Spanish, while gradually being introduced to English.

Parents would be able to apply for waivers for their children to remain in bilingual education, though districts could reject such requests without explanation.

Teachers, parents and politicians on both sides of the debate say that teaching English as a second language to 4.4 million students in public schools is critical to helping them succeed in American society. But they are at odds over which approach is most effective.

"We are talking about the best way to teach English learners, but there does not seem to be a way to get a clear-cut answer to that," said Robert Linquanti, a researcher for WestEd, which studies educational policies for effectiveness. Mr. Linquanti wrote a report for the California Legislature earlier this year that found no major effect from the switch to English immersion.

Teachers' unions, school superintendents and Secretary of Education Rod Paige have voiced opposition to the initiatives. Although they do not necessarily favor bilingual education, they say individual districts or teachers should decide which approach to use.

The initiatives in both states are backed by Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire and software engineer who began an English immersion movement four years ago in California. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for governor of Massachusetts, has endorsed the initiative while his Democratic opponent, Shannon P. O'Brien, has opposed it.

Rita Montero, a former Denver school board member and a leader of the English-only initiative in Colorado, argues that children cannot learn English with the bilingual approach.

"When you have students being taught in Spanish and expect them to learn English later on, they are just doomed to fail," said Ms. Montero, who pulled her son out of a bilingual class 10 years ago. "This isn't working and it is cheating children."

But Susan McGilvray-Rivet, who oversees bilingual services in Framingham, Mass., says making children learn English while putting other subjects on hold will cause those students to fall further behind their English-speaking counterparts.

"The idea that these children shouldn't learn the same material as other students is absurd," Ms. McGilvray-Rivet said in a debate this week at Brandeis University. "We cannot expect everyone to learn at the same rate and then allow them to fail. They need support in their native language."

Rosalie Porter, a former director of bilingual education who also spoke at the debate, responded that if students did not learn English soon after entering schools in the United States, they would languish and the largely Spanish-speaking population would continue to post low test scores.

English is a second language for about 4.6 percent of the students in Massachusetts public schools; in Colorado the figure is 8 percent. Both states use bilingual education and immersion, with most schools adopting some combination of the two.

In this middle-class suburb south of Boston, bilingual programs are offered in Spanish as well as Cape Verdean Creole and Haitian Creole. But the students also take some classes in English, including an eighth-grade reading class taught by Celeste Hoeg.

"Why was Johnny Appleseed a folk hero?" Ms. Hoeg asked her class one recent morning, pointing to a diagram on the chalkboard. "Do you remember what a folk hero is?"

Clifford Louissaint, who arrived from Cape Verde six years ago, eagerly raised his hand. "Someone who has done something to help people, like firefighters," he answered.

Nearby, a student translated Clifford's answer for a girl who arrived this year from Brazil. The students' next class, social studies, was taught in their native language.

In California, where 25 percent of the state's students are not native English speakers, voters approved an English immersion program by 61 percent to 39 percent in 1998. Since then, test scores in first through third grades have climbed, with 27 percent of English learners scoring above the 50th percentile, up from 13 percent four years ago. There have been none of the sharp declines that some opponents of the proposition predicted.

Still, it is not clear whether non-English speaking pupils are learning the language any faster. About 7.8 percent of California students were moved to mainstream English classes in 2002, compared with 7 percent in 1998, before the initiative passed.

Nationwide, about 850,000 students who speak English as a second language were in bilingual education programs in 2000, compared with 976,000 enrolled in English-only programs, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. More than 2 million are in programs that combine the two approaches.

Current polls show that about 60 percent of voters in both Colorado and Massachusetts favor the limits on bilingual education. But last week Patricia Stryker, a Fort Collins, Colo., philanthropist, donated $3 million to the Colorado campaign to retain bilingual education, and supporters of the measure concede that the expected media blitz could help defeat the measure.

Mr. Unz said he had spent about $1 million on the initiatives in the four states since 1998. Whether or not the latest initiatives are approved, Mr. Unz is likely to continue trying to eliminate bilingual education elsewhere. He has said he has considered mounting campaigns or legal battles to install English immersion progams in Oregon, Illinois and New York.

The initiatives allow for parents to request waivers, and Mr. Unz has criticized California districts for granting thousands of waivers since 1998. The current ballot measures would allow teachers and other school officials to be sued if they pressured parents to request such waivers or could not provide sound reasons for granting them.

In both states, opponents of the initiatives have focused on the lawsuit issue. In Massachusetts, the committee against the initiative has distributed bumper stickers and signs reading, "Don't Sue Teachers."

School officials are unsure how school systems would change or how the laws would be enforced if the proposals pass. "I try not to think about it," said Dr. McGilvray-Rivet of Framingham. "We just don't know what we would do."

Bilingual Balderdash


October 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Wall Street Journal. All rights reserved. 

Four years after Californians voted to all but scrap "bilingual education," the results are remarkable. The share of Hispanic students scoring above the median in math tests is now 46%, up from 27%. The number scoring above the median in reading is now 35%, up from 21%. You'd think this evidence would cause other states to oppose this form of ethnic separatism, but too many politicians are dodging the issue.

This year's battlegrounds on bilingual education -- a euphemism for Spanish-only instruction in most places -- are Massachusetts and Colorado. Both will vote next month on initiatives that would move students into English-immersion programs unless their parents request a waiver. In the liberal Bay State, the moderate GOP candidate for governor, Mitt Romney, supports English immersion. But ironically in Colorado, conservative GOP Governor Bill Owens has sided with an education lobby that wants to prop up this failed teaching tool.

In Massachusetts, the reform effort is being led by Lincoln Tamayo, a Cuban immigrant and former inner-city school principal. Mr. Romney is highlighting the issue in his TV ads. "English is the door to opportunity in America," he said in a recent debate. "If our children cannot speak English fluently, it robs them of their ability to compete for jobs."

Backers of bilingual ed have denounced Ron Unz, the California businessman who is spearheading the national bilingual debate, as "hateful" and "spiteful." Gerardo Villacres, director of the state's Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce, said last month, "Half of the words in his name says Nazi on it, and that says a lot." Charming fellow, Gerardo.

Mr. Unz can be annoying or worse, but he's right on this issue and the extreme reaction against him is explained by the bilingual lobby's fear that their expensive 30-year-old gravy train will end. "Their message to middle-class Hispanics is to incorrectly claim that Unz is trying to wipe out Spanish and extinguish a distinctive Latino culture," says California parent Martha Montelongo; she adds that even after such scare tactics 40% of Hispanics voted to end bilingual education in both California and Arizona.

That level of Hispanic support has convinced bilingual backers that they can win only if they scare middle-class whites. In 1998, their efforts failed in California even after a $1.5 million donation from the owner of the Spanish-language Univision TV empire. This year liberal heiress Pat Stryker has donated an astonishing $3 million to defeat the Unz initiative in Colorado. That's the TV-time equivalent of $25 million in California.

The heiress's money has paid for a slew of TV ads with doomsday music that claim "Amendment 31 will knowingly force children who can barely speak English into regular classrooms, creating chaos and disrupting learning." The Rocky Mountain News's "Ad Watch" called the veiled warnings about a swarming immigrant horde "inexcusable." Where are La Raza, Maldef and the other self-styled Hispanic lobbies in response to this demagoguery? They don't seem to mind anti-immigrant innuendo as long as it helps preserve bilingual ed booty.

The flood of money and TV ads in Colorado has apparently spooked Governor Owens, a popular conservative who's otherwise getting lots of good press, including in these columns. Mr. Owens believes the U.S. needs a common language, but he is opposing Amendment 31 on the technical grounds that it allows parents to sue school officials if they don't enforce the law. Mr. Owens calls this "a fatal flaw," but in California no such lawsuits have been filed since the Unz initiative passed.

In Massachusetts, Mr. Romney has also expressed concern about the lawsuit provision but still backs the initiative. He says he will work with the legislature to modify it once it passes. It's sad to see Mr. Owens pander to Hispanic lobbies and avoid a debate on the failures of bilingual education. If the initiative is defeated, the losers will be the 70,000 children now trapped in Colorado's bilingual programs.

It's sometimes difficult to separate those who support a common language that helps to undergird a common national culture -- the classic view of those of us who back assimilation -- from those who harbor animosity to more immigrants. Both will be attacked by ethnic separatists who want to squelch debate. We think the voters can sort out the difference and make the right call in Massachusetts and Colorado, much as they've already done in Arizona and California.

Looking Closely At Second Language Learning

If We Value Bilingualism, We Should Be Concerned That Young 2nd Language Learners Can Easily Lose Their First Languages

An Interview with Shattuck Professor Catherine Snow

Harvard Graduate School of Education

by Abigail Bucuvalas

Harvard Graduate School of Education

October 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002 President and Fellows of Harvard College.. All rights reserved. 

As Massachusetts voters consider a ballot initiative to overhaul bilingual education this fall, Shattuck Professor Catherine Snow discusses the research about second-language learning and English immersion.

Q: Do you believe that the critical period for language acquisition affects one's ability to learn a second language? Might it affect the way in which one learns that second language?

A: The evidence clearly demonstrates that there is no critical period for second-language learning, that there is no biologically determined constraint on language learning capacity that emerges at a particular age, nor any maturational process which requires that older language learners function differently than younger language learners. There are, however, myriad differences between older and younger learners that play themselves out in second-language learning just as they do in the learning of a musical instrument, a sport, or nuclear physics. For some aspects of learning, older learners have compelling advantages; for others, they have disadvantages. Those advantages and disadvantages emerge as a result of many variables that vary with age. These variables include how much one already knows, how strategic one's learning can be, how embarrassed one is about making errors, etc., and are not biologically determined.

Q: Could you offer any potential explanation(s) for the fact that older learners of a second language typically achieve basic proficiency in the new language more rapidly than younger learners?

A: Older learners do have many advantages. First, they already know one language (and sometimes more than one) quite well, and have therefore practiced with the linguistic capacities that speed language acquisition. Second, they are typically better at intentional learning. In other words, they have study strategies, mnemonic devices, literacy skills, and other resources to utilize. We are not surprised that older learners are better at algebra or history; we should not be surprised that they are faster second-language learners.

We are not surprised that older learners are better at algebra or history; we should not be surprised that they are faster second-language learners.

Q: Are some second-language skills more naturally acquired by younger learners than by older learners? Is the opposite ever true, that is, do older learners acquire some skills more readily than younger learners?

A: It is hard to understand what one means by "naturally acquired." Younger language learners, like older ones, work hard and struggle while learning. But younger learners are probably more willing to learn socially useful language, including phrases and longer utterances, without knowing exactly what it means. Thus, they can sometimes function better in certain social interactions. Younger learners generally are learning in the context of more contextual interactions; therefore, they may have advantages in picking up the meanings of the words they hear. And, while younger learners certainly start out with a "foreign accent" just like older learners, they may be more willing to experiment with unfamiliar sounds and sound sequences.

Q: How different would you imagine the learning of a second language to be, comparing older and younger learners? When might changes in learning style begin to take place?

A: One of the pieces of evidence that most strongly argues against the existence of a critical period for the acquisition of a second language suggests that there is no particular age when the ability to learn a second language declines. A critical period would be associated with a rather sharp fall-off in speed, ease, or success of second-language acquisition, but no such decline has ever been reported. Furthermore, studies that have compared the errors of older and younger learners who learn in similar contexts have found they make very similar errors, suggesting again that they are applying quite similar cognitive processes to the learning challenge.

Q: Do you have any possible explanations for the achievement of adults who demonstrate exceptionally strong abilities to learn a second language?

A: Studies of highly successful adult second-language learners suggest that they have a high motivation to learn the target language, and a period, typically early in the acquisition process, of full immersion in the target language, with minimal recourse to the first language. Of course, it is more often children who learn second languages that find themselves in this position of being highly motivated and left to sink-or-swim in the second-language setting. Consequently, it is perhaps not surprising that they are somewhat more likely to achieve high second-language proficiency.

Q: What influences in second-language learning would you say are repeatedly overlooked by the researchers who conclude that children demonstrate a greater capacity to learn a second language than adults do?

A: The missing variable in research on age differences in second-language acquisition is first language maintenance. Child second-language learners are somewhat more likely to achieve native-like proficiency in the second language than adult learners, and massively more likely to lose proficiency in their first language in the process. Adult second-language learners almost never become monolingual in the process of learning a second language, as children often do. Thus, they master the greater cognitive and linguistic challenge of maintaining two languages, often at a very high level, with much greater success than do children.

We need not be panicked about pushing children into English as early as possible.

Q: What implications does this research have for the potential successes and/or failures of bilingual education, foreign language classes, and English immersion programs? Is the age at which second-language learning begins irrelevant?

A: The age at which immigrant children learn English is not irrelevant–they need English during elementary school in order to access the curriculum, to be accepted by English monolingual classmates, and to pass high-stakes assessments. But the research shows that we need not be panicked about pushing children into English as early as possible, that there is no window that will shut on them and make it impossible for them to be fluent English speakers. Furthermore, if we decide to value bilingualism as an outcome for American children, we should be alert to the findings that suggest that young second-language learners can easily lose their first languages. We should appreciate the value of educational programs that provide for first-language maintenance while building second-language competence.

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