Bilingual education is counterintuitive. Most people wonder: How could teaching students in their native tongue help them learn English? Wouldn’t it be better to teach limited-English-proficient (LEP) students English quickly – through “total immersion” – so they can get on with their schooling?
Such attitudes sustained generations of “sink or swim” schooling. LEP students were placed in English-only classrooms, with no special help in learning the language and no access to the curriculum until they did so. Inevitably they fell behind English-speaking peers. Some caught up, but many failed and dropped out.
By the 1960s, a critical mass of educators and policymakers recognized the English- only approach was failing. Bilingual education seemed like a promising, if untested, alternative.
Three decades later, research has confirmed the wisdom of this view. Over the long term, programs that develop children’s native-language skills show beneficial effects both on their English-language development and on overall academic achievement. Yet skepticism persists. Journalists repeatedly ask: “If bilingual education is effective, why are language-minority students – Latinos in particular – continuing to fail and drop out at alarming rates?” There are several answers.
First, the shortage of trained staff has grown increasingly acute in states like California. As a result, well-designed bilingual programs have been provided to only a tiny minority of English learners. Second, research shows that students drop out for many reasons. Those who received bilingual education actually are more likely to stay in school. Finally, native-language instruction is hardly a panacea for the academic problems of Latino or Asian students – any more than it is for Anglo students. It is merely one variable among many that determines the success or failure of an educational program.
Like other researchers in the field, linguist Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California advocates English instruction from day one in bilingual programs, but at a level students can understand. The key point is that language acquisition is a developmental process that cannot be rushed. Indeed, placing children in incomprehensible classrooms and drilling them in meaningless exercises in English is likely to slow them down.