Thursday, July 10, 2008

What is the benefit of bilingual education?

In my experience, first-grade students who don't speak English can learn basic English rapidly, and can learn to read basic English just as rapidly.

But soon they hit a wall.

They can't keep up with instruction because they don't have the advanced vocabulary that native English speakers have developed at home. The English learners don't understand the concepts that are being taught, and don't gain the thinking skills they need.

I believe these skills need to be taught in Spanish while the students are learning English vocabulary and grammar. Kids will naturally be able to use their thinking skills in any language, and will catch up to grade level in English as long as their instruction is of a consistently good quality.

Children learn languages rapidly; they seem to be hard-wired for grammar and vocabulary acquisition. Unfortunately, the same is not true for more complex thinking skills. One of the unfortunate characteristics of poor families of any color is that adults tend to talk less to their children. Teachers need to teach kids to think, but it doesn't do much good to talk to kids in a language they don't understand.

Why not get kids to operate on a higher level in the language they understand at the same time that kids are acquiring a second language? It takes more than the ability to speak English to get a good job; people who speak only English end up as ditch-diggers, too.

Why don't Hispanic immigrants assimilate the way other immigrant groups did? A few years back I was distressed to read that many second and third generation Hispanic immigrants are less successful in school than their parents were. I think this is a result of our failure to teach higher-level skills to the first generation that comes here. Sure, they learned basic English, but they didn't get the whole package, the critical thinking skills and love of learning that needs to start early if we want children to become part of our advanced technological society. And neither did their children.

Robert Samuelson of Newsweek recently wrote about a UCLA study: "Compared with their parents, the children of immigrants did make progress, Telles and Ortiz found. Incomes increased; English-language skills spread; intermarriage rose. But after the first generation, gains were grudging. Third-generation Mexican-Americans were only 30 percent as likely as non-Hispanics to have completed college. In the fourth generation, about 20 percent still had incomes below the government poverty line...Because government policies might mute these problems, they ought to be subjects of campaign debate."

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