Perhaps, here, the most telling words seem to be "the more intelligent class," "the better class," and "those of their countrymen who come here with good intentions." Indeed, one has to wonder which groups of immigrants would not wish to be considered as representatives of these words. Certainly, if an avocation against bilingual education will allow them full membership into a class of people who are "intelligent," of "better class," and "with good intentions," it would be tempting to say the least.
The simple truth is, a majority of those who oppose bilingual education are famously right-wing and typically Republican. In fact, under virtually every Republican Administration, issues of bilingual education have consistently been maligned (Ostrom, 1998). Consider, for example the remarks of 1996 Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole, who asserted that teaching English is meant "to speed the melting of our melting pot," and that "...We must stop the practice of multilingual education as a means of instilling ethnic pride, or as a therapy for low self-esteem, or out of elitist guilt over a culture built on the traditions of the West (Pitsch, 1995)." Quite an interesting statement when one considers the oppositional belief that subjects (including English) are taught in the public schools in order to educate, not as a political or national goal to foster assimilation.
Further, the common undertone of "Americanism" as a primary reason for the acquisition of English (thinly veiled under a supposed interest in immigrant "success" in life), only undermines the fact that good educational theory is almost never a consideration in the debate. In fact, despite several examples of miss-managed bilingual education programs, the theory of bilingualism simply makes sense.
Although many legitimately wonder how a child in a bilingual program will ever learn English, it must be remembered that educational theory supports the notion that a good education in any language helps a student to do well once he or she learns to take courses in a second language. Again, this fact is demonstrated every year in the accomplishments of members of the ranks of foreign students enrolled in United States universities (many of whom begin their U.S. education with ESL classes upon enrolling at colleges and universities -- thereby demonstrating that years spent in acquiring generalized education in their native language in no way hampers their progress later).
The truth is, a child who understands the basic fundamentals of mathematics is better suited to understanding the basics taught in a foreign language than one who has to struggle with those concepts from the beginning in a language that is incomprehensible. After all, the average college educated adult can attest to the difficulty of learning calculus, for example, in English. One has but to imagine just how much more difficult it would be to learn it in Arabic with no prior knowledge of the language.
Another example commonly cited in the debate is that of primary literacy. Many studies have proven that reading ability strongly transfers between languages -- that is the process of reading, letter recognition, scanning, decoding, etc., prepares one to read in another language. Thus, according to Frank Smith, in his 1994 work, Understanding Reading, it is not only easier to learn to read if one understands the words that are being read (as opposed to incomprehensible words in a foreign language), but once reading has been learned, the ability crosses over into other languages once those languages are acquired. However, of course, the reverse is not true. That is, if a student struggles to acquire primary literacy due to a fundamental incomprehension of the words on the page (arguably the very conceptual goal of reading -- without which serious delays must be expected), it is unlikely that he or she will do well later with regard to literacy in any language.
Unfortunately, politics and public opinion seems to be taking central stage, especially in light of current events in the "No Child Left Behind" program. Indeed, under the banner of politics and political alliances, the nation has seen the 1970's Supreme Court decision affirming the necessity of bilingual education dealt a fatal blow. Not only is this unfortunate due to the incredible waste of time and resources given to develop theories and practices in support of the method, but it is also unfortunate because much of the so called "evidence" in opposition to bilingual education is politically driven, highly contrived and biased -- to the detriment of real students in need of quality education, whatever their ethnic or national background.
Even more unsettling is the willingness of political candidates, politicians and parties to "parade out" choice Hispanic parents in particular in support of their views, as if one's mere existence as an "immigrant" necessarily makes one an expert on the issue of the merits of bilingual education. As Rothstein points out, "Opponents of bilingual education promote Hispanic parents to the media when they claim they want their children to learn English without bilingual support." Further, according to Rothstein, "...the clear implication is that only liberal ideologues and separatists support native-language instruction. These claims...may not reflect the feelings of most parents.
Sadly, although the honest reality of the situation is that most of the issues surrounding successful education of non-native English speakers is extremely complex, many -- especially those with access to immense financial stores and large "chunks" of media coverage, attempt to make the matter appear to be very simple. After all, they say -- "This is America. Be a good American -- Talk American!" Just what this urging really means (as well as the sentiment behind it) is obviously very different from what English-only proponents say it means. Clearly, according to them, they only want "what's best" for the immigrant child. Yet this hardly seems to be the real goal.
The truth is, the United States public school system is hardly an institution whose ultimate goal is the "assimilation" of each student into the dominant cultural society of the nation -- at least as it is represented by the political Right. Instead, most agree that the primary function of the school system is to effectively educate students -- especially toward the goal of allowing them to function successfully in their later lives. Although it may seem to be a positive thing for the child to eventually grow into a "good American," which seems to mean one who is indistinguishable from the majority, culturally, linguistically, as well as ideologically, the days of the acceptability of using the school as an "indoctrination center" (as in the tragic case of thousands of Native American children) are over.
So just what should be done? After all, it is one thing to decry "what is" and another to assume that there is a solution to the problem of the bilingual education debate. According to Stephen Krashen in his 1999 work, Bilingual Education: Arguments for and Arguments Against, a good and successful bilingual program can work, provided it have some basic characteristics, including:
The provision of thorough background knowledge on any given subject in the student's primary language. Not only does this reinforce the learning process, but it also insures that eventual same-subject instruction in English will be better understood and learned.
The concepts of basic literacy and early reading will be taught in a language in which the student holds significant levels of comprehension. It is far more difficult for a student to grasp the concept of reading without being able to comprehend meaning.
English will be taught in an English as a Second Language context -- that is as a foreign language (which is exactly what it is when one strips the issue of its political or nationalistic implications).
In conclusion, to allow the issue of bilingual education to become a political rather than an important educational matter is a grievous error as well as an injustice. Further, it is interesting to note that many of the politicians so rabidly against the idea of bilingual education -- those who assert that "total immersion" is the only way to go, have, themselves no experience learning a second language. One certainly has to wonder, then, given the immense complexity of educational theory surrounding the issue, just how those politicians came to their "expert" conclusions.
In the issue of bilingual education is best left to those "in the trenches." After all, one would hardly seek to learn ice skating from someone who just read about the mechanics of the practice. To take into account the vapid views of political interests, politicians, and political parties is hardly in the interest of anybody but those interests, politicians, and political parties. The issue is within the educational system, and within the schools themselves. It only makes sense that the solution…