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The Real Reason For Bilingual Education

by Roger E. Hernández

October 27, 2000
Copyright © 2000 All Rights Reserved.

If the polls are correct, voters in Arizona are going to vote in favor of a ballot question ending bilingual education, just like voters in California did in 1998.

Bilingual ed is in trouble in New York City, too, after a report issued by the Board of Education this week stated that youngsters in bilingual classes take too long to be "mainstreamed" into regular English-language instruction. Even the liberal New York Daily News piled on, editorializing that the city should "scrap bilingual education once and for all."

Fortunately, Mayor Rudy Giuliani disagrees. He favors an improved version of bilingual ed, in which students would be moved to full-time English within two years. Yet, even that is not the ideal solution.

No doubt, there are bilingual programs that do not work, whether it is because kids do not learn English or do not learn it fast enough. But the same can be said for mathematics, history and even English for native speakers. Everyone is familiar with the abysmal state of public schools in inner cities, which produce graduates who are monolingual native speakers of English, yet cannot string together a few sentences into a coherent paragraph.

No sane person says that because native English speakers are not learning the fundamentals of writing, they should no longer be taught English; or that history classes should be scrapped because too many students don't know the difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War.

The same way schools shouldn't stop teaching history, they shouldn't stop bilingual ed. Teaching history is a good thing. Bilingual classes are a good thing. They just need to be done right.

The primary goal of bilingual education should be, of course, to teach English to immigrant children. But it should not stop there.

There also needs to be emphasis on maintaining a student's native language. Making a quick transition to English the sole goal of bilingual education is a waste of a student's native tongue. Of the millions of native speakers of English who took a foreign language while in high school, how many remember much more beyond "la plume de ma tante" or "Boo-ey-nohs dee-ahs, sen-yo-ra"?

It doesn't have to be that way for students who come to school already knowing French or Spanish or whatever other language. A strong bilingual education program will teach them English even as they keep up with age-appropriate skills in their other language.

There should be two goals for bilingual ed: to ensure that a Spanish-speaking second grader from Colombia would speak, read and write English at the level of his/her classmates by the fourth grade; and to understand Spanish at a level appropriate for a fourth grader in Colombia.

Being fully bilingual is an advantage, that simple. Why shouldn't schools work toward that goal?

The problem is that the debate over bilingual education has become a fight between extremes. On one side are those who think bilingual ed should be thrown out altogether, even to the point of forcing a high school junior who knows no English to sit in an English-language biology class where he or she cannot understand the teacher.

On the other side is a bilingual education establishment that insists even little kids can take as long as 10 years to learn enough English to be "mainstreamed."

Common sense would tell us that children in primary grades soak up new languages like sponges -- an ability that is lost at puberty.

Results from California two years after Proposition 227 showed that the end of bilingual education wasn't the disaster proponents of bilingual education predicted. Test scores of primary school kids who had been in bilingual classes and were now in English "immersion" did not take a nose dive.

The anti-bilingual people haven't stopped crowing. Everybody is looking at the wrong question. Young kids will learn English quickly. The real issue is whether they can become proficient in their native language.

Roger Hernández is a nationally syndicated columnist and Writer-in-Residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He can be reached via email at

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