Banning bilingual ed worked for kids

California’s bilingual education ban, which was supposed to lead to disaster, worked for Hispanic students, writes Heather Mac Donald in City Journal.

Hispanic test scores on a range of subjects have risen since Prop. 227 became law. But while the curtailment of California’s bilingual-education industry has removed a significant barrier to Hispanic assimilation, the persistence of a Hispanic academic underclass suggests the need for further reform.

As Mac Donald writes, many ex-bilingual teachers have decided that early elementary students can do well in English. It’s much harder for middle and high school students to learn academic content if their English skills are weak. These are the kids who rarely got bilingual classes in the past and don’t get them now, though some are taught in “sheltered English.”

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  1. When I first entered pre-school in this country, I didn’t speak any English. I learned plenty fast, because none of the other kids spoke German. I wonder how much more difficult the transition would have been if half or most of the other children had been German speakers.

  2. Alfie Kohn can bite me.

  3. California did the right thing. Arizona has followed their lead and, while there is no research as far I know to measure its progress (our system is only three years or so old), anecdotally it seems to work better than the previous system.

  4. Then as now, the only “research” backing up bilingual education is a chorus of ideologues singing from the same hymn book, all on the same page, happily insulated from the results of their advocacy.

    Disassembling what those ideologues established is gratifying and worthwhile but it’s incomplete. The people who have a significant amount of responsibility for the establishment of bilingual education are still around, still treated as if they have some value to contribute to the practice of education.

    Engineers whose bridges fall down don’t subsequently build many bridges. Educational philosophers whose airy theories result in a generation of kids being mis-educated should be treated similarly.

  5. For substantial research on bi-lingual education, we really have to go to other countries, who have actually taken bilingualism far more seriously that we have. We are still heavily committed to being a unilingual country. We see non-English speakers not as those who have a leg-up on bilingualism, but as handicapped. We are not the only nation in the world to have sizeable populations having a “mother-tongue” (a term we don’t even use) other than the official, or mainstream, language. Singapore has dealt with multi-lingualism within a polyglot society for many years, actually making determininations with regard to official language, the language of trade and the language of education (not necessarily the same languages) based on the need to forge an identity for Singapore that recognizes three major population groups–along with the colonizing influence of the English. They have in fact wavered between favoring English as the language of business, technology and research and Chinese dialects as a recognition of heritage. While both English and Chinese have been used as the language of instruction in varying times and places–the clear assumption is that all students will become bilingual from an early age and tri-literate, through the introducation of a third language at an upper grade level. Uniquely, the government has urged the adoption of a single Chinese dialect as the “home” language for all heritage speakers of Chinese–in order to ensure that all children are raised in at least one “school” language.

    Hong Kong, which initially favored English as the language of instruction found that their capacity for doing this well was limited. Without an adequate teaching force of fluent English speakers, what occured in classrooms frequently consisted of water-down content to match language skills, or code switching–translating English materials into a Chinese dialect. They have, despite some resistence, moved to a policy favoring “mother-tongue” teaching as the best means of transmitting content. They still, however, work towards an expectation of bi-lingualism.

    Finland is a country with three national languages and some experience with immigrants from Europe as well as Somalia. The are also strongly committed to “mother-tongue” education, providing content from early ages in Finnish, Swedish and an indigenous language. A second (national) language is added in early elementary and a third (frequently English) in upper grades. This commitment to mother tongue has carried over to education of immigrants with a high level of commitment to teach (and test) in mother-tongue to the extent possible.

    All three of these countries are high performers internationally, acknowledge the importance of maintaining a knowledge of mother-tongue (despite differing approaches to this) and set a basic expectation of bilingualism from an early age.

    So long as we see languages other than English as either a handicapping condition or a barrier to assimilation, we are not likely to do very well in either educating non-native English speakers in academic content, or in teaching native English speakers in other languages. We have a large dose of xenophobia underlying our English-only commitment that serves neither immigrants nor native-born very well.

  6. Point well taken, Margo; however, the issue at hand is that the type of bilingual education that was being practiced in California and Arizona (and several other locations in the US) was not working. The other thing to remember is that in the US, there are so many mother tongues being spoken that providing instruction in all of them is not feasible.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Yeah. Multi-tongued nation.
    I recall dealing with activists who actually wanted bi-multi-many-lingual ed and none in English because they wanted the US to break up into balkanized communities.
    You would be surprised to learn they didn’t care much for assimilation, either.
    And, of course and no surprise, Margo accuses those who disagree of a moral crime–xenophobia.
    That’s old, too.

  8. Anon–I agree that the quality of the instruction is key–as Hong Kong determined. The number of languages issue frequently comes up, and while there is some truth to this, it ought not be a barrier to moving in the direction of either providing quality mother-tongue instruction to major language groups–cetainly Spanish. Nor should it be a barrier to moving in a direction that considers bi-lingualism to be the norm and a goal to be worked towards–rather than a handicap.

  9. Charles R. Williams says:

    Spanish speaking students in the Southwest do not know enough of the right kind of Spanish to function well in school. Their language skills in Spanish are weak. If they are to learn – let’s say – physics in Spanish, they will need years of formal instruction in Spanish. Immersion in English is the only strategy that makes any sense. Now, if we are talking about a 15 year-old from Madrid who just came over with his professional parents and has been educated in elite private schools and plans to go back in 3 years, yes it would make sense to teach content in Spanish.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Good point. I have a sort-of relation. Mexican woman from an upper-class family who stayed with us one summer. when she was a kid.
    She is in Austin teaching immigrants (good) Spanish and English.
    I asked if the kids’ parents resented the implication that their Spanish was not proper, not even good Mexican, let alone current with the Academie Real. No, they are anxious their kids learn as much as possible and lousy Spanish is a handicap in a number of areas, including learning English.

  11. Unfortunately, the value of multi-linugual societies is more apparent in theory and to those who don’t have to bear their costs then to the people who enjoy their broadening influence.

    Also, multi-lingual nations are the product of necessity not convenience or advantage. They extract costs, both social and monetary that proponents of bi-lingual education don’t seem inclined to admit let alone measure. Where multi-lingualism isn’t a necessity it rapidly falls by the wayside as the melting pot of the United States has demonstrated through most of our history. Trying to make multi-lingualism legally mandatory pleases few people, benefits hardly anyone and results in no social benefit worth the cost.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Some of the costs are not, in the view of the proponents, necessarily bugs. They’re features.
    You know. The further you get from Dick and Jane and their uptight parents–married to each other, no less–the hipper and edgier you are.
    Sort of Zinn country, instead of Paul Johnson country.
    Do the bluenoses and the patriots get upset? Whee!

  13. Sorry Richard, I’m an expert on the subject being bilingual and hailing from a family of Eastern European Jews all of whom spoke at least five languages with various snips and snails and puppy dog tails of several more to help get by back when they were in “the old country”.

    They didn’t learn all those languages to broaden their horizons but because of hard necessity.

    It’s mostly the improbably wealthy – that would be most Americans by the standards of the last handful of decades – who could indulge the luxury of learning languages for no more reason then to broaden their cultural horizons. If that appeals to you then knock yourself out. If you think it’s a good idea in general then save your rationales for more a more receptive audience because I know that multilingualism extracts a cost that isn’t generally seen as worthwhile. That’s why where the necessity for multilingulism doesn’t exist the facility withers.

    The monolingulism of most Americans, seen as deplorable by some, I see as that “level playing field” so beloved by devotees of a social justice they seek to impose by the judicious application of social injustice.

  14. I’ll just throw this out here. Not sure how it fits into the conversation. It’s a study in contrasts.

    I live in a large Southwestern-US city with a sizeable population of residents whose native language is Spanish. Frequently the local TV or newspaper will interview someone who has lived in this city for 10-20 years and who requires an interpreter to translate from Spanish because s/he doesn’t speak any English.

    On the other hand, I work in a company of ~300 employees, many of whom hail from countries other than the US. Our offical company literature used to say our employees speak about 30 different languages, but I’m sure it’s far more than that now. A number of these employees are well-educated Mexicans with technical degrees from a prestigious university in Mexico. At the annual children’s holiday party, one of my younger coworkers picked up the giveaway book for her little sister, who lives with their parents in Mexico. Little sister was 6 at the time — and already reading English.

    If children in Mexico can learn to read English, why is there a problem in the US?

    Apropos, sort of, the Real Academia Española has just this week published the offical Spanish grammar that’s been in the works for years. Google “Nueva gramática de la lengua española”.

  15. Mike Curtis says:

    A multilingual education allows you to be functionally illiterate in more than one language. How on earth do you expect to be successful anywhere if you can’t understand the language of the people signing your paycheck?

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    No idea what you’re saying or if you’re addressing me, since I have no idea what you’re saying and you apparently have no idea what I said.

  17. To all those who bring examples of working, or at least supposedly working, multilingual societies I’d like to point out that I am unaware of any example of any *large* society where multilingual education works well, both on educational as well as on social dimension. Singapore and Hong Kong had to make the best of the cards they were handled. Other small nations juxtaposed among larger ones (like Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland) or special circumstance minorities (e.g., Jews, Gypsies) also had to cope with this issue.

    All those only demonstrate that in principle multilingualism *can* be handled. The question is whether there is an inherent benefit in widespread multilingualism. Cultural warriors will argue either way, depending on where they come from. Others will argue “globalization” but that seems of limited appeal despite the hype. Single language seems important to bind together large societies. See, for example, Germany, France, China, or even the old Soviet Union or British Empire. Where it doesn’t exist, internal dissent seems uncomfortably present — look at India, Spain, or even the tiny Belgium.

    I would simply say that we are blessed that we do have effectively a single language in the US, which even more blessedly (although not incidentally) is becoming a global language. Rather than agonize about it we should take advantage of it, as it ought to make everything from education to voting more straightforward. This should not imply that we should not encourage everyone to learn more languages, but I see it no different from encouraging everyone to learn more arts, music, and science — all are hallmarks of educated citizens, but no single one is particularly critical to the success of our society.

    So can anyone please explain to me clearly what is the inherent advantage of working so hard to have a successful bi (or multi) lingual society rather than working a bit less hard to have a successful English speaking one?

  18. Kirk Parker says:


    I suspect allen totally missed your sarcasm, and concluded that you were advocating for a point of view that you were actually decrying.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    You may be right, although, strictly speaking, it’s not sarcasm.
    It’s the sort of thing I’ve heard from various lefty activists when I was associated with peace&wonderfulness groups.


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