Bilingual ed, si or no?

Lance Izumi argues for English immersion while Bruce Fuller stumps for transitional bilingual classes on the New York Times’ Education Watch.

Fuller argues:

But millions of young children enter school without grasping much English, and No Child Left Behind now humiliates them by setting on their desk a standardized exam that can’t be deciphered.

I think this is a red herring. NCLB requires testing at the end of third grade, when most students have had nearly four years to learn English. Those in English immersion have much more exposure to English than those in transitional bilingual classes, which typically use Spanish 90 percent of the time in kindergarten and first grade and often don’t teach reading in English till the middle of third grade.

Fuller writes:

Even a Bush administration review of controlled classroom experiments — seeking to identify what works in language teaching — found stronger achievement gains for students enrolled in quality bilingual programs, compared with English-immersion classrooms. Yet a skilled bilingual teacher is crucial, one who understands the knowledge and social norms that children acquire at home, and how to build from the first language to advance rich oral language and then written literacy.

Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of skilled bilingual teachers; as a result, quality bilingual programs are the exception, not the norm. It’s easier to find teachers capable of teaching well in English.

About Joanne


  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of skilled bilingual teachers; as a result, quality bilingual programs are the exception, not the norm.

    Joanne uses this as an argument for monolingual programs. I say, it’s an argument for getting better teachers, both for bilingual programs and for English-only programs. American schools are across-the-board crummy, and teachers are drawn from the dregs of college graduates. We need to recruit better teachers, by giving better pay and better working conditions.

  2. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    Indeed, we DO need to recruit better teachers through various means – I should organize my thoughts and post them here if I have the time to do that and see what y’all think of them – but onto the subject at hand…

    Many years ago, a little girl began classes in the United States, and was thrown to the wolves, so to speak, by being fully immersed in English, in spite of her only knowing German. And even if her mom wanted bilingual education for her daughter in German – which she didn’t, because as she would tell her children, they are in America now – the school officials would have told her “too bad”. That little girl hated it for a few years, but she picked up English very quickly, to the point where today she speaks English better than some native speakers. I know all about that girl; today I know her colloquially as “Mom”. (And if her children ever used bad grammar in her house, God help them because we would all feel her wrath…)

    I tend to avoid her when topics like this come up; she throws an absolute fit about things like this, especially in light of her experience. I can’t say I blame her. Interestingly, in my own experience, I saw countless students who were originally from China or Korea in school who weren’t coddled with bilingual classes and they did just fine. In fact…perhaps people elsewhere in the country can help me out here in case I am wrong…it seems that there are only bilingual classes for the portion of the population that speaks Spanish as a first language. Considering how many immigrants we have in the population that come from all over the world, why is this the case? How come we don’t see bilingual classes in, say, Russian, Chinese, or Hindi, or other languages? If we were seriously committed to the concept of bilingual education…why don’t we see this being done?

    I say that we toss the bilingual education. Chances are that the children of recent immigrants will learn their native language at home anyways, as has been done for many years now in the United States.

  3. Hong Kong has spent a good bit of time on this issue. Coming out of colonialism there was a popular belief in the superiority of English as the language of instruction. Lacking adequate competent instructors to meet the need of a rapidly expanding educational system, what came into being were “mixed code” classrooms–with text in English and frequent translation into Chinese (Mandarin) and a reliance on rote memorization and lower-order thinking skills.

    Over some decades there has been transition to “mother tongue” as the first language of instruction unless certain pre-requisites could be met, including quality of instruction and student readiness (sufficient knowledge of the mother tongue). But their end goal is to produce students proficient in both Chinese and English. Singapore had a slightly different take on it–adopting English as the primary language of instruction and maintaining cultural ties through classes in the home language. Again, they are shooting for students who are fluent in at least two languages.

    I don’t see much evidence in this country to a similar commitment to bilingual education, no matter what the languages are. We are poorly equipped to teach students in their “mother tongue,” unless it is English–and don’t really see much point in it either. Native Spanish speakers have no way to learn Spanish in an appropriate way in school (they could wait until high school and then suffer through Spanish 3 or AP Spanish), that is, writing fluently, becoming conversant with the literature, etc. Native English speakers are not introduced to a second language until middle school at the earliest–and then it may only be a “survey” course.

    I think that the key to Fuller’s assertion is the word “quality” in describing the effects of bilingual programs. High quality bilingual programs surpass English immersion programs. I suspect that there are way too many bilingual and immersion programs that are not high quality.

  4. C33;

    Your mother’s experience mirrors that of my German/Polish grandparents. However, they were a post-war generation. Prior to WWI, German immigrant students WERE educated in the German language. That all changed with the war, and public burnings of books of the German poets, etc.

  5. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    And in my hometown of San Antonio a century ago, you could get German language newspapers easily as German was essentially the second language of San Antonio. Your point?

    When my grandmother arrived on these shores, she decided that her children, since they were no longer in Germany, really should learn the vernacular of the government and business of the United States. She quickly determined it was English, not German, and acted accordingly. Knowing what I know of my grandmother – who was fluent in five languages – she would be turning in her grave had she known her grandson took up German in high school and college.

  6. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    On Hong Kong: it should be noted that it is essentially a tri-lingual city. If one rides the subways there, for example, you will notice announcements are made first in Cantonese, then in Mandarin, and thirdly in English. The reasons for Cantonese and Mandarin are obvious, but I suspect English is still in use because 1) it increasingly is a lingua franca in Asia and 2) with English knowledge, suddenly you can speak with about 500 million more people, excluding those who aren’t native speakers (like many in Europe and Asia). Thus one who knows all three can converse with about 2/5 of humanity.

    And then you have cases like Quebec and Belgium, which struggle with language issues constantly.

  7. I was thrown into an English-only class when I started school, and I turned out A-OK. Then again, I was only four or five years old at the time, and very young children often learn languages much easier than older kids. My older cousins were around 9 and 10 years old when they came to America…I think they were in some ESL program for a few years before they were mainstreamed. Today, they understand English fine.

    However, I don’t know much about the 12- and 13-year-olds who are being shoved into immersion classes. I mean, I don’t necessarily believe that bilingual education is the answer, but I can’t fairly equate my own experience (or that of my cousins) to older children.

  8. *much easily. Not *easier.*

    Grrr. Can’t believe this happened in a thread where we’re discussing English proficiency. *smacks head*

  9. *much more easily, I mean.

    That’s it, I officially need about 10 more hours of sleep.

    So that this post isn’t a complete waste…my middle school has started a Mandarin immersion program. I think it’s in its third year…? Anyway, while most of the students in the program are Chinese, I believe that they also speak English fluently. The immersion program is simply a way for them to hold on to that second language (speculation on my part; I don’t know the ins and outs of the MIP).

  10. I cast my vote for Catch Thirty-Thr33. Our family had the same experience only two generations earlier. On one side they were from France and the other side, Germany. It’s no wonder I’m schizophrenic. 🙂 🙁

  11. Put me on the side of immersion. Bilingual education could work well, but all too often it’s monolingual, neglecting the target language. Also, it’s a lot easier to neglect the target language when you’re grouped exclusively with people, especially kids, who speak your first language.

    The situation with 4th grade testing is also variable, because not all kids will have arrived for first grade. But at that age, they pick up the language incredibly fast.

  12. linda seebach says:

    It is incorrect to claim that “Prior to WWI, German immigrant students WERE educated in the German language.” No doubt some were, but my mother started school before WWI, speaking only German, and her schooling was exclusively in English.

  13. Catch Thirty-Three says:

    Indeed, linda, if it weren’t buried in a box someplace (as I am moving into a new place), I’d pull out my biography of Admiral Nimitz. He came from Fredericksburg, TX, from a German immigrant family and also surrounded by German immigrants. He got his education prior to WWI and from what I recall, his primary language of instruction was English. And this was helpful, as the language of instruction at West Point (turned him down) and the Naval Academy (accepted him) was and is English.

  14. Linda and C33:

    I didn’t mean to imply that instruction in German was universal, only that it existed and the same dialogue that is going on here existed at that time, with a contingent that strongly believed that the best means of transmitting content to a native German speaking population was to teach it in German. And the reason that this methodology disappeared had nothing to do with evidence that another pedagogy was superior, but because our countries were at war and part of the demonization process was to discount all things German. In my town streets were renamed, books burned, etc.

    Again–Hong Kong has invested quite a bit into determining the best means of instruction, finding that the English immersion (or EMI) classes in their country were not of sufficient quality, and that as a result many students were not exposed to higher order thinking skills. There are still EMI schools in Hong Kong, and there are still content courses taught in English in some schools, but there is a greater emphasis on ensuring the quality and appropriateness of the EMI instruction.

    Singapore went a different direction, as the result of having a population with at least three language groups in addition to English. English was selected as a unifying language, however “mother tongue” (Mandarin, Tamil or Malay) is supported through classes as well. Through decades of intermarriage and English education (as well as a government campaign to urge adoption of Mandarin as the home language of speakers of various other regional Chinese languages), the “home language” is not such an easy thing to identify for all children and many arrive at school with experience in multiple languages.

    But again, in neither case is the native language ignored, as it is in this country for the most part. While corporations embrace multi-lingualism (for its economic value), we still have significant believers (with legislation popping up pretty regularly) in English only. I don’t think it has served us well. So, I don’t think that there is a right answer if the question is bilingual or immersion. I think we need to broaden the question to examine the overall question of first and second language acquisition for all students.

  15. John Thacker says:

    “I say, it’s an argument for getting better teachers, both for bilingual programs and for English-only programs. American schools are across-the-board crummy, and teachers are drawn from the dregs of college graduates. We need to recruit better teachers, by giving better pay and better working conditions.”

    But there’s still a question of efficiency, as Joanne points out. You can’t just wave it away with magical thinking and saying that we must have the best in everything. There are all sorts of possibilities. To me, Joanne seems to be arguing that perhaps for a school district, the cost of various teachers runs like:

    Quality bilingual teacher > poor bilingual teacher > quality English-only teacher > poor English-only teacher

    But the quality of instruction runs like:

    Quality bilingual teacher > quality English-only teacher > poor bilingual teacher > poor English-only teacher.

    (That’s not all that unusual a hypothetical; bilingual teachers are hard to find, and even crummy ones can get salary bonuses for being bilingual in many school districts.)

    In such a situation, it seems somewhat foolish to concentrate on hiring bilingual teachers, since you’ll end up hiring a lot of crummy teachers who teach worse than quality English-only teachers but paying them more.

  16. Robert Wright says:

    The topic of bilingual education often generates less than intelligent comments.

    But not this time.

    My compliments to all who posted above.

  17. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:


    As one who knows two other languages outside of English, I am all for students learning other languages. However, the fact remains that the vernacular of the United States is English. Not Chinese, not Russian, not German, not any other language. And not Spanish either.

    Hence, we need to ensure that our students know and understand how to communicate in English. Knowing other languages is simply outstanding. But without the mastery of English, our students will go absolutely nowhere in this country. (By the way, I see nothing wrong with making English the official language of government.)