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Bilingual Education for the 21st Century
By Ofelia Garcia, Ph.D.

Bilingual education in the 21st century must face the complexity brought about by the freer movement of people, services, and goods that characterizes our more globalized and technological world. In the second half of the 20th century, bilingual education grew around the world as a way to educate children who didn't speak the state's language or, in some cases, to recapture the heritage language of a group. This in itself was an innovation over the use of bilingual education only to educate the children of the elite.

In the 21st century, however, the complex and dynamic links created by technology and globalized markets, coupled with the importance of English and other “big” languages, challenge our old conceptions of bilingual education. UNESCO in 1953 declared that it was axiomatic that the child's native language be used to teach children to read, but basic literacy, even in one's own language, is insufficient to be a world citizen in the 21st century. And although places such as Catalonia and the Basque Country developed excellent bilingual education programs to advance Catalan and Eusquera (Basque) in the latter part of the 20th century, it turns out that Catalan/Spanish or Eusquera/Spanish bilingualism is no longer sufficient in a world in which English plays an important role. In Canada, where immersion bilingual education programs succeeded in the last part of the century to make Anglophones bilingual, French/English bilingualism is not sufficient when the other languages of Canada, both indigenous and immigrant languages, are increasingly important. And the success of bilingual education programs in such places as Friesland, where Frisian/Dutch bilingualism started enjoying some stability, are being challenged by a renewed interest in becoming competent trilinguals in Frisian/Dutch/English.

In the United States, bilingual education in the last part of the 20th century grew as a way to educate the children of immigrants, especially Spanish-speaking children from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba who were arriving in increasing numbers and who were failing in the nation's schools. Although the majority of Spanish-speaking children in U.S. schools are still of Mexican background, today there are increasingly children from other parts of Latin America, some who bring their own bilingualism to bear, as evidenced by the growing number of Spanish/Quechua and Spanish/Mayan language bilinguals in the New York City area. Immigration from all over the world has also brought to the nation's schools children with very numerous languages, most importantly Chinese. For example, in New York City, a full 48 percent of the school-aged population, between 5 and 17 year olds, speak a language other than English at home. Of those, 406,000 students speak Spanish. Although there are a great number of Spanish-speakers, Spanish is spoken by only one-third of the students who speak languages other than English. Besides Spanish, there are large numbers of New York City students who at home speak Chinese (51,000), languages from the Indian subcontinent (29,000), Russian (27,000), Yiddish (25,000), French Creole (20,000) and Korean (11,000). There are school districts in New York City where many languages other than English are represented in the same classroom. Clearly, the sociolinguistic situation of the children has gotten more complex.

It has been predicted that by 2050, English will be accompanied by Chinese, Arabic, Spanish and Urdu, as the world's big languages, ordered not only with English at the top as it has been up to now, but with an increasing role for the other four “big” languages. But as the world has tried to respond to its increasing needs for multilingual citizens, capable of living and working not only in the language of the state and the region, but also in at least two of the international languages, the United States has increasingly turned to higher standards in English-only as a measure of school success.

States throughout the world are providing options to their children to be schooled in two or more languages. The European Union has recently adopted a policy of “Mother Tongue + 2” encouraging schools throughout the EU to develop children's trilingual proficiency. For those purposes, a model of teaching is being promoted that encourages the use of the languages other than the child's mother tongue in subject instruction. Throughout the European Union, programs of Language Awareness have cropped up even in countries that hereto have been suspect of bilingualism—France, for example. And children go from grade to grade with a “Language Passport”, documenting their use of languages other than their mother tongue in study, travel, visits to other countries, other places.

Yet, the United States has reacted to the world's increased multilingualism, a dynamic multilingualism that others start referring to as “plurilingualism” because of its hybrid character, by tightening, its grip over English-only instruction. Bilingual education programs in the United States are enjoying less status than ever, many are closing. As a result, transitional bilingual education programs for immigrant students have all but disappeared, with children being robbed of the greatest strength they have to learn a second language—the ability to use their own language to make sense of the second one. And the much talked about alternative—dual language programs—programs in which both immigrant and native-born children who speak English only are schooled bilingually, are almost non-existent.

Bilingual education around the world seems to be doing so well it is no longer sufficient, and multilingual education systems, such as the ones of the European Multilingual Schools are being developed, building on today's technological advances and our more fluid identities. And yet, bilingual education in the United States is being reduced to standards in English-only, maintaining its name, but not its potential to develop the multilingualism that will be so important for American citizens in a world where English will increasingly compete with other languages, especially Chinese and Arabic. The victims of this narrowing of the U.S. schooling potential might not only be the children. Ultimately, our democracy and values might be the victims. #

Ofelia Garcia is Professor of Bilingual Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.


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