[Currents headergraphic]

January 19, 1998

Opinion: Shouldn't all children be bilingual?

By Barry McLaughlin

The current debate over bilingual education obscures what should be the true goal of bilingual programming: All students should learn to communicate in two languages.

In much of today's debate, bilingual education is understood to mean education in Spanish (or another non-English language) only. This is hardly bilingual education.

By definition, a bilingual classroom is one in which all children are engaged in instructional activities in two languages. Does such education exist? Indeed it does. A relatively recent innovation in American education has been two-way bilingual programs in which children are taught in two languages.

In these programs, native English-speaking children are in class together with children whose home language may be Spanish or Chinese or Japanese. Instruction is in both languages. In the Spanish version of a two-way program, English- and Spanish-speaking children are taught in Spanish and English. Children have to learn to communicate in both languages. And they do. By the fifth or sixth grade, it is difficult to distinguish native and non-native speakers. The children are truly bilingual.

But current educational practice is hardly aimed at bilingualism. Many children who go through 'transitional' bilingual education programs, in which the native language is used as a bridge for learning English, eventually do learn English but at the cost of losing proficiency in their home language. This is bad educational policy. Instead of building on children's bilingualism, we are seeing many children lose skill in their native language.

One of my students, a bright young woman whose family spoke Chinese, told me how her mother stressed to her the importance of learning English and did not allow her to be instructed in Chinese. She did learn English and succeeded in the educational system. But there was a personal cost. She found communication with her mother in Chinese increasingly difficult. Now they only talk to each other in rudimentary Chinese. She told the class that it wasn't worth it. As a young adult, she realizes how important it is to be able to communicate well with her mother and to have the benefit of a second language in today's global community.

Bilingual education should not be an either/or proposition. The educational system should have enabled this woman to retain and develop her Chinese as she learned English. Instead, she and many non-English speakers like her lose a great deal of their home language by the time they reach high school. In some cases they try to regain their proficiency in their native language in high school or college, but in the majority of cases the home language is impoverished or lost entirely. We Americans seem to feel that learning two languages at the same time would be too much of a strain for children--a notion that multilingual Europeans find very strange.

Although a growing number of schools are adopting the two-way approach to bilingual education, these programs are still rare exceptions. It is more common for schools to use an assortment of methods and programs for their non-English-speaking students. These include English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, using a simplified form of English (sheltered English), and/or instruction in the native language. Language learning is not two-way. The goal is not bilingualism, but English.

Instead of doing away with bilingual education we should promote genuine bilingualism and find new ways to make all of our children bilingual. There are new and exciting approaches. Children can become successful bilinguals. We need to focus on high-quality bilingual education for all of our children. Maybe if we took learning a second language seriously in this country, the stigma would be removed from bilingual education.

Barry McLaughlin is a professor of psychology . He has written a two-volume book on second-language learning in childhood and has been director of the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.

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