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New York City
September 2003

About Bilingual Education
by Lorraine McCune, Ph.D.

This volatile topic is often dominated more by closely held political opinions and cultural bias than by the needs of children, their teachers and parents. In some school cultures there is a divide between the “bilingual” teachers that can include all ofýthose working with children of limited English proficiency and the “regular” teachers. I have personal experience of a school where the teacher of the bilingual K1 class only learned by accident that all of the “regular” kindergarten and first grade clýsses were having a Thanksgiving Feast, with food, entertainment, parent participation. When the bilingual K1 teacher inquired about why her library time was cancelled the day before Thanksgiving break, she learned that the library was co-opted for the party…but not a party for her kids. Teachers of children with special needs have found some of this same exclusion. I hope this is a rare occurrence. However it is symptomatic of a view that sees some children—and hence their teachers—as so different that their needs and interests do not come to mind when plans are made for the ‘regular’ kids.

The professional politics of Bilingual Education as a field can play into this problem. Professionals in this field vary widely regarding both the goals of the programs and the theory of what is best for children. The basic tension is between maintaining and valuing the home language versus promoting the use and knowledge of English. My own expertise as a language acquisition researcher leads me to believe that this tension is more illusory than real.

Language acquisition remains in some ways mysterious, but the effects of various bilingual situations occurring naturally in homes and communities have produced some facts that should not be ignored.

The earlier children begin to learn a language or languages, the more rapidly they progress and the more successful they will be.

Children can easily learn two languages by immersion if both are begun in the first six or seven years of life.

Language is part of a child’s sense of self and self-worth and is best learned in a nurturing environment where her meanings are understood and her needs met.

As children reach middle childhood and early adolescence they begin to profit more from formal language instruction, and learning by immersion is a bit more difficult.

Based on these facts, drawn from my understanding of bilingual language acquisition, I have a few suggestions for optimizing children’s bilingual development.

In our shrinking world everyone can benefit from having two languages, so preserving and accepting the home language is important. However, every year in school where a child is taught solely in the native language rather than English will increase the child’s difficulty in learning the new language. These facts suggest that the ideal approach to English-language learners in the early grades is to provide instruction in both languages, with a goal of emphasizing English more as the year progresses and as individual children are ready. It is even a good idea to transfer children to English-only classes during the school year as they are ready. Children between six and seven when they enter school, knowing no English, are likely, by the end of second grade, to read English as well as those who entered speaking English, given appropriate instruction.

Alternatively, truly bilingual schools where entering monolingual children—for example those knowing either Spanish or English—are taught together, half the day in each language are an even better idea. In this case almost all of the children are likely to be reading in both languages by the end of second grade. I say almost, because difficulty in learning to read will inevitably plague some children and their teachers no matter what the circumstances.

The needs of non-English-speaking children entering school in middle childhood or adolescence, is an even more complex issue—beyond the brief confines of this column.

The nurturance and language acceptance aspects, essential to feelings of self-worth should never be neglected. Teachers and other school employees communicating, even haltingly, in the languages of children’s homes, provide a sense of caring for families and children. Never forget that all of the children and families are “our families” regardless of the home language.#

Dr. McCune is an associate professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education and serves as advisor to educational toy company, General Creation. She can be reached at www.generalcreation.com in the “Ask Dr. McCune” section.

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