Philosophical Assumptions of English-only vs. Bilingual Education

There are profound philosophical assumptions underlying any program model or instructional approach for educating language minority students. Below is a comparison of assumptions about teaching and learning a second language and about the relative value and importance of cultural characteristics and behaviors that guide the design of English-only immersion and bilingual education programs.

Jill Kerper Mora


Philosophical Assumptions

English-only L2 Instructional Model

Bilingual Education

English should be the only medium of instruction for second-language learners in public schools. It is only important to develop literacy and content-area knowledge in English. Bilingualism is a hindrance to learning English and therefore, detrimental to children's short-term and long-term academic advancement. Both English and a child's native language are used as a medium of instruction at different points throughout the program for different functions and purposes. The two languages hold a position of equal prestige and importance. Students' L1 learning is not seen as merely a means to an end, but rather a legitimate and important end in itself. 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.
The exclusive use of English is advantageous and does no harm to students. In fact, students must be "weaned" from the use of their L1 so that they are not "tethered" to their native language in school. Use of children's home language creates a "cycle of native language dependency" that must be countered by English-only instruction. Parents should also be encouraged not to speak a language other than English to their children in the home.  All human beings are dependent upon language for communication. Use of English for a monolingual native-speaker of English is never seen as a form of dependency; rather, it is seen as a foundation for learning.  Students who come to school with a fully developed language other than English benefit from the use of their language as a medium of instruction. The concept of a native-language "dependency" represents a devaluation of speakers of other languages. Students can be profoundly harmed by negative messages about the value of their language and culture. Bilingualism and bilingual education builds connections between the home and school to enhance learning. Furthermore, it is a grave concern to parents of children who are in the process of becoming bilingual that they cannot express themselves fully during their first years of schooling in an English-only environment. Language minority children are therefore denied an equal opportunity to learn in school.
Students can learn enough English in one year of intensive instruction to function in mainstream classrooms. The amount of time on task in English is the determiner of how much English students will learn. Children with low levels of proficiency are nevertheless capable of understanding normal classroom instruction. Teachers need only make some modifications in their instructional procedures to make content comprehensible to students with limited proficiency in English. The objective of instruction is to teach English "quickly" so that students can be mainstreamed into the regular school program. Students 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 available to them for learning English and advancing academically.
Theories of transfer of knowledge and skills from L1 to L2 have not been proven to be valid. Bilingual education theory is that language transfer can only occur after three to five years of instruction in the native language. Literacy instruction in English is just as effective, or more effective, for teaching L2 learners. The more quickly students learn to read and write in English, the faster they will progress in school. Reading instruction in their native language retards this process. Bilingual educators are satisfied with the many sound research studies that establish 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. Language and cognitive abilities share a common underlying proficiency, which if enhanced leads to greater proficiency in both languages  Children who read and write in their native language transfer this knowledge to written English, thus accelerating their progress in literacy and academic content learning.
Only proficiency in English is important for students to be successful in school and in American society. Proficiency in English is the key to academic success. It is solely up to a child's culturally different family to maintain the home language and culture. Children who become fully assimilated into American culture must abandon their native language and culture in order to be loyal Americans. Proficiency in English is crucial, 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 linguistic resources in groups and individuals in an increasingly competitive global economy.
Claims that children's self-esteem suffers in an English-only classroom environment are false. Although schooling in English only may be difficult for some children at first, it will not cause any harm to their self-esteem. Their early discomfort in this situation is compensated for by the joys and affirmation they gain from learning English. When children learn English quickly, this allows them to experience more success as they move up through the grades in school. Children's cultural identity is an important element in their self-esteem. The language they speak and that is spoken in the home is a vital part of the formation of an identity. Experiences of failure due to lack of English proficiency in academic tasks are confusing and demoralizing. When  children experience success in complex academic tasks like learning to read and write it their own language, they will be more positively predisposed to learn English. The negative messages about the lesser value and importance of their native language over time when its use is restricted or banned have a powerful negative impact on their self-esteem, and consequently, on their long term success and engagement in school.
Monolingual English-speaking teachers are equally qualified or more qualified to teach second-language learners because they are native speakers of the English language. In addition, since these teachers don't speak the students' L1, children are forced to communicate with them in English. Some study of a foreign language is sufficient to make monolingual teachers aware of the difficulties of second-language learning. Although properly trained monolingual teachers may be effective L2 language teachers, bilingual and biliterate teachers have a higher level of language teaching skills because they are fully proficient in two languages. For this reason, they are capable of understanding and communicating with L2 learners in ways that enhance learning. Bilingual teachers also have a higher level of metalinguistic awareness that enables them to teach students using contrastive linguistics to enhance language transfer. They are also strong role models of bilingual and bicultural achievements.
Educators who believe in the principles of English-only are better able to make decisions regarding the manner in which language minority students should be educated. Bilingual educators act out of a misguided "bilingual ideology" or in their own self interest in planning programs for second-language learners. 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 and produce competition or authoritarian governance are counterproductive, even destructive, in a multicultural society.
Segregation of language minority students for English immersion instruction is beneficial. LM students should be grouped by language proficiency level in heterogeneous native-language groups. Since this segregation is temporary, it will not have a negative impact. The state has the right to mandate this form of segregation as the "default mode" of program placement for limited English proficient students because it has been approved by a majority of voters. Parents are required to obtain a waiver in order to not have their children segregated in the manner mandated by state law, either for placement in a mainstream classroom or in a bilingual program, if one is available. Bilingual education programs by their very nature require segregation of students into homogeneous native-language groups. This segregation is temporary and only allowed with parental consent, assuming that parents are convinced that their children will receive a significant educational benefit from learning in their primary language. 
Within a bilingual classroom, children have acquired varying levels of English proficiency, and therefore they can interact in English and learn from each other.
There are many communities in which de facto segregation exists. Consequently, integration with native-English speakers is not an available option. In such cases, bilingual education is especially important since it reflects the bilingualism present in the local school community.
Early and rapid learning of English in school will reduce dropout rates, especially among Latinos. This is because children's success in the upper elementary grades depends on a solid knowledge of English language and literacy. Education for language minority students is a long term process spanning K-12. A focus on English learning in the early grades in the absence of primary language instruction forces students needlessly to sacrifice their learning of academic content while they learn English. Both can and should happen simultaneously. Knowledge of English is only a part of a complex array of factors that prevent dropping out of school. English-only programs result in more in-grade retention, which itself contributes to higher drop-out rates among overage teen-agers in high school. Youth who have a strong cultural identity in addition to solid academic skills are more likely to stay in school until graduation.
Parents should be advised or required to place their children in English-only programs because structured immersion is in the best interests of the child. School districts should have policies that discourage parental waivers. Ultimately, parents of second-language learners must acquiesce to the superior judgment and authority of school officials because they carry out a public policy preference expressed by a majority of the electorate. Parents must be provided with  information regarding full range of language program options available to them under the law. The available options should be made available based on district personnel and resources and not restricted because of ideology or political beliefs. Parents must be appraised of both the risks and benefits of the different program options. Teachers should be free to consult and advise parents on their child's case. Parents' decisions must be respected, just as majority-group parents' decisions are respected in educating their children.