Immersion Teaching Means Learning in Any Language

By Goode, Stephen | Insight on the News, April 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

Immersion Teaching Means Learning in Any Language


Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News


For years liberal educators looked to bilingual education as the correct method of English instruction. But a well-known language activist concludes that mainstreaming should be the watchword.

In 1990 Rosalie Pedalino Porter published Forked Tongue, a strongly argued, biting attack on bilingual education that was made all the more powerful because what it had to say came directly from the belly of the beast.

Porter had been active in bilingual-education programs since the early seventies. But by the time she came to write Forked Tongue, she tells Insight, she had "concluded that bilingual-education programs [which teach students entirely in their native language from five to seven years to provide transition to English] do not work. They do not result, as they promise to do, in better learning of English or other subjects."

It's an opinion she still holds--more firmly than ever. This spring, a second edition of Porter's now-classic Forked Tongue is being published with a long epilogue that brings her readers up to date on what has happened in bilingual education since the book made its first appearance.

She has good news: "There are school districts across the country switching from native-language programs to programs in which English is the primary language, often called immersion programs, because the results of bilingual education have been so bad."

But Porter also has not-so-good news: "The bilingual-education bureaucracy [the network of teachers, administrators and educators who argue for bilingual education] is still very strong."

In 1990, Porter wondered why two decades of failure didn't convince bilingual-education supporters of the futility of their efforts. Now, armed with new information from studies performed since that time, she's even more at a loss to explain its continued appeal. "Both federal and state agencies continue to give preference to native-language programs over English as a second language [or ESL, programs that teach non-english speakers primarily in ] by a wide margin," she notes. This is true even though "there is no conclusive research that demonstrates the education superiority of bilingual education over ESL' programs, which usually cover a period of only three years.

Indeed, the opposite is true, as Porter maintains in the new edition of Forked Tongue. She cites the example of a study conducted two years ago which showed that Korean, Russian and Chinese students in New York City's public schools have the advantage of mainstreaming into regular English-taught classes far more quickly than do Spanish-speaking or Haitian/Creole-speaking students. …

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