A great travesty occurred in California on June 2, 1998. By passing Proposition 227, California's voters elected to terminate bilingual education in their state. It was a sad day for our country because we allowed ill-informed politicians and xenophobic voters to dictate educational policy.
The United States is a country of immigrants--immigrants who have come seeking freedom and the pursuit of the American dream. Throughout history, English has been the common language that has united these immigrants from all over the world. English is the language of this great country. None of us who support bilingual education question the validity or the importance of the English language, as some would like the public to believe. Quality bilingual programs emphasize the acquisition of English. English is taught to all immigrant students; it is required, and we aim to perfect it in the school setting.
Yet to learn English, students need not forget the language they bring to school with them--be it Spanish, Vietnamese, or Urdu. Bilingual education is not like an antibiotic that we give to children who are sick, their illness being lack of English. As soon as the children are well, that is, as soon as they know English, the antibiotic-bilingual education--is removed. Good bilingual programs are not remedial but enrichment programs.
One common misunderstanding is that bilingual education is the exclusive domain of immigrant students. No, studying a second language is a right that belongs to all students--recently arrived refugees, African Americans, and, yes, white Americans. Languages expand a child's cognitive development. Knowing more than one language is not an impediment to intellectual capacity. If it were, the rest of the world's children outside of the United States would be intellectually inferior to ours. After all, the majority of them are bilingual.
Years ago, being bilingual was a privilege reserved for those who could afford to send their children to private tutors or to a finishing school in Europe. It was a privilege reserved for those who traveled and went to the opera. In today's global economy, being bilingual can no longer remain a privilege reserved for the elite. Today, being bilingual is a right that must transcend all socioeconomic strata. Denying all students that right is not only a mistake, it is an injustice.
Students are enabled--not disabled--by being bilingual; they are empowered by knowing more than one language. The American experience is strengthened, not weakened, by citizens who can cross languages and cultures. The United States can no longer afford to remain a monolingual country in a multilingual world. Being bilingual and biliterate not only gives people a political and economic advantage, it also allows them to be bridges between people of different cultures.
For immigrant students, being bilingual means having the best of two worlds--their home culture and language and our nation's culture and English language. For native speakers of English, knowing a second language means opening up their horizons to the richness of cultural diversity and becoming active participants in--and not merely spectators of--today's global society. In no way does it require supplanting one language and culture with another.
This may come as a surprise to many, but bilingual education is not a recent phenomenon in this country. Its history in the U.S. falls into two distinct periods: the first from 1840 to 1920 and the second beginning in the early 1960s.
In 1840 a form of bilingual education originated in Cincinnati with a state law designed to draw German children into the American schools. Several other similar initiatives, which provided instruction in Dutch, Italian, and Polish, among others, took place during the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. During World War I, strong anti-German sentiments increased, and by the end of the war bilingual programs were terminated and "Americanism" and English-only instruction were promoted. …