The Bilingual Education Controversy: A Road Map

The controversy surrounding bilingual education and programs to serve language minority students is complex and puzzling for many both inside and outside the community of professional educators. The purpose of this web page is to provide a guide to understanding the issues surrounding language minority education by placing aspects of the controversy into broad categories: Linguistic issues, cultural issues and academic program issues in bilingual education. Important legal and policy issue stem from these concerns and differing opinions regarding the best approach to educating limited English proficient (LEP) students. We will pose and analyze some basic questions surrounding each of the elements of controversy within each of these broader categories by providing links to pertinent articles, presentations and discussions to address each of these questions.

Linguistic Issues

Monolingualism valued Bilingualism valued
The United States is a monolingual nation. What value is there in being bilingual? It is a positive thing for people to learn to speak more than one language, but this is an "extra" that need not be part of the regular school curriculum. Why should children in the public schools be taught in their native language when it is so important to learn English?

Both English and a student's native language are used as a medium of instruction at different points or throughout the program. Developing literacy skills in L1 reduces the risk of reading failure. Biliteracy is a positive and beneficial outcome of dual language instruction. Content-area knowledge is enhanced and accelerated by the use of students' L1. 



Subtractive bilingualism Additive bilingualism
When families speak a language other than English, isn't it the responsibility of the home to maintain the home language? Isn't it better for children to replace their native language with English? Proficiency in English is vital, but it is only one factor that supports high levels of academic achievement. Bilingualism also supports academic achievement and enhances many areas of knowledge that monolinguals may not achieve. Society will benefit by nurturing and enhancing its linguistic resources in an increasingly competitive global economy.
Bilingualism is a divisive force Bilingualism is a natural phenomenon in a multicultural society
We must remain an English speaking nation in order to be united as one people. Isn't bilingual education divisive? English is the language of opportunity in the world today. People all over the world are learning English so they can enjoy economic and social opportunities. Shouldn't the focus of public school learning be exclusively on English? Linguistic diversity is a natural and positive reality in a culturally diverse society such as the United States. Bilingualism and multilingualism are taken for granted in most industrialized ntaions and multilingualism is supported and encouraged through bilingual education and second/foreign language education in public schools. Monolinguialis is the exception and is viewed as unuseful and limiting in societies where multiple languages are used in personal, social and economic life.
Bilingualism is an impediment to academic achievement Bilingualism is an advantage in learning when language and literacy skills are fully developed
Why should children be taught in another language when this may delay their English language learning?

Bilingual educators are satisfied that research establishes the accuracy of cross-linguistic transfer theory. Transfer is not sequential but rather a concurrent process where learning in L1 and L2 is reciprocal and continuous because of a common underlying proficiency for both language systems. 

Age of acquisition of a second language: The earlier the better The age range for acquiring bilingual proficiency spans throughout the elementary school years
Young children learn English more quickly and easily. Language learning becomes more difficult as children get older. Doesn't this mean we should teach English as intensively as possible so English can be learned before children get too old to acquire the language without retaining a "foreign" accent? Students in the public schools are expected to learn and achieve in three areas: language, literacy and academic content. An exclusive focus on second-language acquisition can disadvantage students in their progression through increasingly difficult and complex content area learning as they move up through the grades. Multilingual educators are skilled at making language acquisition explicit while also teaching grade-level academic content to L2 learners.

Cultural Issues

Assimilation of immigrants should be rapid and complete Acculturation is a complex process of adapting and integrating new cultural values and life styles
Isn't there a danger that if immigrants keep speaking their native languages that they will not assimilate into American mainstream society? Research confirms that students whose families and communities maintain the use of immigrant parents' language of their country of origin have stronger academic achievement and are less likely to drop out of school. This is attributable in part to the linkage between language use and strong identification with students' ancestral culture. Many second or third generation children of immigrant parents seek to learn or "relearn" their heritage language to gain the advantages of bilingualism. 
Segregation of ethnic groups and ethnic enclaves Patterns of immigration have changed in our multicultural society
Isn't there too much separation already of groups according to their ethnicity? Doesn't bilingual education aggravate this situation by separating students in the public schools into separate classrooms to teach them in their own language? Most bilingual education programs are dual language programs, where students whose families are English speaking are enrolled in equal proportion in a school with language minority L2 learners of English for the purpose of becoming bilingual and bicultural. Although teachers may use either the home language or the target L2 language exclusively for designated periods of instruction or subject-area instruction, students who are L1 speakers and L2 learners of both languages are mixed in classes and courses throughout the school day.
Cross-generation and recent immigrant conflicts Degrees of bicultural affirmation and identity
Previous generations of immigrants have assimilated and most have abandoned the language of their country of origin. Why don't today's immigrants do the same? Aren't they refusing to learn English? Isn't it unfair to Asian, African and European immigrants to just provide bilingual education for Spanish speakers?

Demographic statistics indicate that one out of every three public school students in California speaks Spanish as his/her home language. 80% of all English Language Learners are Spanish speakers, with the next largest language group being Vietnamese, at 3% of the student population. There are many dual language programs whose target language is an Asian language (Madarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese). However, to deny or curtail opportunities for the large number of Spanish speaking bilingual learners to maintain their linguistic heritage and become bilingual and biliterate because resources are not available to offer the same opportunities to all language groups is neither equitable or wise.

Academic Program Issues

Type and duration of programs for English language learners Models of bilingual education vs. monolingual education
Why can't young children learn English in school in a year or two? Doesn't bilingual education delay children's opportunities to become literate in English? Can't we teach children English by teaching them in English? Cumulative test data and reclassification statistics Student acquire conversational English within one to three years, but the language needed to perform abstract and complex academic tasks takes from five to seven years to develop within a school context. Students' ability to learn English depends upon the amount of comprehensible input they receive in the language, which is not dependent only on "exposure" to the language, but on appropriate teaching techniques. Students' content knowledge in their native language increases the amount of comprehensible input. 
Program effectiveness Multiple criteria for determining success of bilingual programs
Isn't English immersion simply more effective in teaching English? What justification is there for the added time and possible additional costs and/or resources needed to provide bilingual education?

There is no research evidence to support the notion that English immersion is a more effective way to teach English in an academic context, most especially to pre-literate students who have yet to acquire reading and writing skills in any language. Bilingual educators are satisfied that research establishes the accuracy of cross-linguistic transfer theory. Transfer is not sequential but rather a concurrent process where learning in L1 and L2 is reciprocal and continuous because of a common underlying proficiency for both language systems. 

Teacher qualifications and availability Roles and responsibilities of bilingual teachers
There is a critical shortage of bilingual teachers. Shouldn't we prepare monolingual teachers to provide effective instruction for limited English proficient students? Aren't bilingual teachers taking jobs away form monolingual teachers? As a monolingual  teacher, why should I care about bilingual education?

Although properly trained monolingual teachers may be effective L2 language teachers, bilingual and biliterate teachers have a higher level of language teaching skills and are capable of understanding and communicating with L2 learners in ways that enhance learning. They are also strong role models of bilingual and bicultural achievements.

Bilingual educators and monolingual educators who are knowledgeable about second-language teaching and learning must work together to plan programs at the local district and school levels, since students benefit from shared decision-making and collaboration. Policies that promote mistrust and divisiveness between groups are counterproductive, even destructive, in a multicultural society.

Legal and Policy Issues

Language policy to promote societal change Language policy beyond the sphere of influence of the public schools
Our public schools have always been a vehicle for assimilating new immigrants. Won't policies that promote assimilation lead to a better society and more social and economic opportunities for immigrants?

The role of our public schools is to educate our children. We must avoid policies that may appear to foster cultural integration when in fact these policies place obstacles to and restrictions on effective educational programs that promote acculturation. Policies such as Proposition 227 is that immigrants do not have the right to determine their own means and pace of acculturation and that the State must stand in loco parenti for parents who wish to use their native language as a medium of instruction in the public schools and demand renunciation of their linguistic and cultural origins in order to become American.

Horne v. Flores: Arizona's SEI

Civil rights to effective English language instruction Civil rights to equal access to the core curriculum and parity with native speakers of English
Don't children have a right to be educated in English in the United States? Isn't bilingual education an impediment to that right?

All children, including language minority students and their families, have a civil and human right to the most effective education to maximize their full human potential. Decisions about the design, implementation and content of these programs should be made as close to the child as possible by local school officials acting in cooperation with parents and school communities. Parents must be provided with full information regarding the program options available to them under the law and based on district and school staff and resources. They must be informed of both the risks and benefits of the different program options. Teachers must be free to consult and advise parents on their child's case. Parents' decisions must be respected, just as the decisions of majority-group members are respected in educating their children.



Political issues surrounding bilingual education Confusion of political and pedagogical issues
Why is bilingual education so controversial? Why are we looking for political solutions to the challenges of educating language minority students?

Bilingual education is controversial because of issues of majority/minority relationships and social and cultural dominance than because of the educational aspects of educating public school students in their non-English native or home language. In reality, voters should not be asked to vote on educational issues about which they have little knowledge and very little investment. Politicians will utilize a hot button issue like bilingual education to further their political ambitions and polarize the electorate. This is very damaging to the society at large and especially to the minority who cannot prevail against the majority when they coalesce in favor of a proposed law or policy that has a negative impact on the minority.

P-227: Separating Myth from Reality