Learning English: Strange as It May Seem, New Evidence Shows It's Better to Know Two Languages but Be Taught Math in English. (Research)

Article excerpt

BILINGUAL EDUCATION IS ONE OF the most intensely contested features of the contemporary education landscape. Initially legislated as a pedagogical tool to address lagging Hispanic performance, its early proponents argued that students with limited English proficiency (LEP) would benefit from deferring the transition to English so they could concentrate on core curricular skills in subjects such as mathematics and science. Over time, bilingual education has developed a professional following and an expanded charter that includes objectives not originally intended, such as the retention of languages and cultural traditions.

The competing pedagogical model for teaching LEP students is known as English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, ESL is essentially a program of English immersion with special instruction geared toward the acquisition of English-language skills. LEP students spend the bulk of their school day in the regular classroom, receiving all instruction in English. In the ESL facet of the program, the children are pulled our of the classroom and meet in small groups with language specialists. The objective is to establish English fluency as quickly as possible, since language acquisition is easiest at young ages. Any delay in curricular learning can be compensated for, the theory goes, but inadequate learning of English will plague students through their school years and well beyond. Social concerns also play a prominent role in support for English immersion programs, as many opponents of bilingual education worry not just about its academic impact but also that it could lead to the fracturing of American society along ethnic lines.

The merits of bilingual education vis-a-vis ESL are not illuminated sufficiently by research. The substantial literature comparing the performance of bilingual education with ESL or complete immersion presents us with highly mixed conclusions.

The central weakness in existing studies of bilingual education is that they do not attempt to separate the benefits of growing up in a bilingual household from the effects of receiving bilingual instruction. Well over half of all language-program participants in public schools are U.S.-born, and more than a third have two U.S.-born parents. Yet the independent effect of being raised in a bilingual household has been ignored in the literature. This is at odds with the findings of numerous linguists who have shown that knowing more than one language can provide the speaker with cognitive flexibility and an expanded basis for other fields of study. Likewise, economists have documented the existence of a language premium that accrues to fluent foreign language speakers in the labor market, Here I incorporate these notions into a more robust model for assessing the effects of language programs on long-term outcomes for LEP students. My results confirm that disentangling the effects of being raised in a bilingual household from the effects of receiving bilingual education in school offers substantial clarity and insight.


Bilingual education was first legislated at the national level with Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968. This legislation encouraged the development of bilingual education programs by offering grants for innovative programs that addressed the needs of non-English-speaking students. The landmark 1974 Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols created a national mandate. The Court ruled that school districts were obligated to take "affirmative steps" to overcome education barriers faced by non-English speakers. That same year, Congress passed the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, extending the Lau ruling to all schools.

Over the years amendments have expanded the scope of Title VII to permit the enrollment of English-speaking students (1978), to include the maintenance of students' native languages (1984), and to emphasize teacher training (1984, 1988). …


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