Thursday, November 1, 2012

Student Reflection

by Megan Creighton

Bilingual Education in the United States: Why are we so far behind?

Since taking linguistic and socio-cultural anthropology courses as well as a Bilingualism course in the Spanish department, I’ve become very invested in the political controversy surrounding bilingual education in the United States. Although Spanish-speakers make up 12.8% of the population, effective bilingual education has yet to truly take off in the United States. When considering the U.S. education system in contrast with several European countries and other developed nations, U.S. bilingual or multilingual education does not remotely compare. Some scholars have even argued that the U.S. approach to bilingual education is more closely comparable to developing nations than developed nations despite its excellence in almost all other areas of education. English-immersion and ESL “pull-out” have been the most common methods of bilingual education for decades, and continue to thrive today today. In places like California (where roughly 1 of every 3 students is an English language learner) and Arizona, where the demand for effective bilingual education may be the highest in the country, Spanish instruction is outlawed throughout the state, giving non-English speakers only one year in an immersion classroom before being transferred to a mainstream classroom taught entirely in English. What does this mean for Spanish-speaking students? It means being a year behind in normal curriculum; limiting their proficiency in both Spanish and English; segregating schools along lines of language and ethnicity; and generally disadvantaging non-English speakers.

In Carlos Ovando’s article, Bilingual Education in the United States: Historical Development and Current Issues, he argues that despite the substantial evidence that bilingual education (not English immersion or ESL “pull-out”) is more beneficial for all students than the popular English-immersion system, it has been nearly impossible to convince the general public as well as administrative boards and policy-makers. He posits that bilingual education is more than a pedagogical tool, as it is entrenched with complicated issues of cultural identity, social class, language politics, and equal rights. The absence of bilingual education implies institutionalized and “symbolic racism” which denies Latino (and other) minorities the right to a good education and a future of opportunity in the United States. Ultimately, Ovando calls for researchers, policy makers, administrators, teachers, and even parents to be “passionate about providing a first-rate educational environment for all children, not only for those who speak standard English,” (19).

In order to reach out to these different populations with varying opinions, however, three decades of positive research results on bilingualism will need to be presented in order to, “clarify misunderstandings about the nature of bilingual education, and overcome xenophobic fears of a perceived attack on the hegemony of English,” (19). We must allow research to drive educational policy rather than politics, especially with regard to bilingual education where the hegemony of English and white American culture has continually prevailed. Ovando describes two distinct paths that U.S. can take in response to this predicament of educating language-minority students: one is implementing two-way bilingual education programs in which English-speaking students and language-minority students can, “learn side by side in multilingual classrooms, becoming bilingual and cross-culturally competent together,” (19) or to simply resist the use of other languages other than English in classrooms, perpetuating an academic and social gap between students, as well as a nationwide socio-economic gap.

In my dual-language Kindergarten classroom at Leal, I’m glad to see that students of both English and Spanish are being given an equally rich educational opportunity from an early age. Not only will these children have the chance to achieve proficiency in two languages by the time they finish elementary school, they will grow up in a more accepting, open-minded, and integrated social environment. At the beginning of the school year there were several English-speaking students that refused to use Spanish, understandably so because they were just introduced to the language. Moreover, I noticed that there was a clear social divide in the classroom: at recess, Spanish speakers played with Spanish-speakers, and English-speakers played with English-speakers. Roughly three months into the school year I have noticed quite a bit of change in both of these trends. Last week, one girl who was adamant against speaking Spanish in the first few weeks was applauded by the teacher and fellow students for willingly conversing in Spanish. Social dynamics on the playground have changed as well. Although there is still a general social divide between English and Spanish speakers, there is much more interaction between them at this point in the year.

I hope that more research on the effectiveness of various bilingual education methods will surface in the near future, and more importantly, that administrators, policy-makers, teachers, and others will listen and take responsibility in truly improving our education system for all students. I wish I had the wonderful opportunity to learn a second language, and in many ways a second culture, at such a young age, and I hope that others will also begin to see how much there is to be gained from adopting this method for our future generation.

Work Cited

Ovando, Carlos J. "Bilingual Education in the United States: Historical Development and Current            Issues." Academic Search Premier. EBSCO, 2003. Web. 16 Apr. 2012.

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