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Education  in a Multicultural Society
Professor Ofelia Garcia Speaks Out In Favor of Bilingual Education

By Emily Sherwood. Ph.D.

Are we marginalizing our immigrant children by denying them the opportunity to learn in a language other than English?  Are we excluding parents and entire immigrant communities from participating in their children’s education by maintaining a sole focus on English language learning? If one listens to renowned bilingual scholar and professor Ofelia Garcia, the answer to these questions is a resounding yes… but there’s also an easy solution.

Dr. Garcia, currently a professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and co-author of numerous books on the subject (her most recent, Bilingual Education: An Introductory Reader, is hot off the press), is passionate about her quest to improve the education of children of immigrants, who now comprise 19 percent of the US school-aged population. During a recent lecture at Barnard College, Garcia decried the federal government’s current trend toward “monolingualism”, which she referred to as a “silencing of languages other than English.” As a case in point, Garcia noted that the name of every federal education office that once had the word ‘bilingual’ in it has been changed: “Bilingualism has become the ‘B’ word,” she exclaimed. “No one can say it out loud!”

The educational model that Garcia recommends for today’s immigrant children is a program much like one she is piloting in the New Rochelle school district, which she calls two-way bilingual education, where subject instruction takes place in both English and Spanish. At the kindergarten level, English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction is provided for newly arrived immigrant children, while Spanish as a second language classes are offered for those with no Spanish background. “In addition, there is a portion of the day in which play time, songs, and stories are in Spanish and a portion of the day in which the same thing takes place in English,” explained Garcia when interviewed privately by Education Update.

Because the second language selected for two-way bilingual education is often Spanish (80 percent of English language learners are currently Spanish), “you need enlightened parents,” added Garcia, noting that her bilingual classroom in New Rochelle includes immigrant students who are African American, Romanian, and Italian, in addition to Spanish. “Our best [fifth grade] Spanish language student has parents who don’t speak a word of Spanish,” laughed Garcia. Yet she is quick to point out that the instructional model must be based on the make-up of the community and their mutually determined goals. “Every community needs to decide for itself what it’s going to do if they are serious about developing the bilingualism of their children,” she concluded thoughtfully.

Garcia’s educational remedies are based on solid cognitive research: “[Bilingualism] gives the student more divergent thinking (the ability to think of things from different angles,) more communicative sensitivity, (an awareness of people’s needs when you communicate), and more metalinguistic awareness, (the ability to think about language in different kinds of ways,)” she reeled off.  In addition, introducing a child to a second language exposes the student to a new culture and new literature. And there’s more, according to Garcia: “We see the value of linguistic tolerance as a resource in an increasingly global world,” a value that has clearly been recognized by the European Union, which is now endorsing “plurilingualism,” the mother tongue plus two additional languages.

With her engaging speaking style, deep intellect, and clear commitment to her cause, Garcia is a powerful ombudsman for bilingualism. In one horrifying story, she told of a newly arrived immigrant parent who tried to enroll her Spanish speaking child in high school: “The school said, ‘Take him back to the Dominican Republic – he can never graduate!’” she related angrily, noting that under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools don’t want students with limited English proficiency because they may reduce the Adequate  Yearly Progress (AYP) statistics and ultimately lead to a failure report for the school. But with the upcoming NCLB reauthorization, she is cautiously optimistic that there will be an opportunity to amend the law so that it allows more incentives for immigrant children to access the public education to which they are legally entitled.

Perhaps most moving in the case for bilingual education are the words of immigrant children themselves. One sixth grader attending a dual language program wrote why she believes bilingualism to be important: “Spanish is important to me because it is one of the languages that run through my blood. It is the language of the land in which my mother walked when she was a child. It is the language of the food that my father ate to get big and strong. And since I can’t be raised in the land in which my parents were raised, I can still talk the language of the palm trees, the sea, and the sun.”

Whether through the evocative musings of an immigrant child or the reasoned discourse of Professor Ofelia Garcia, one is powerfully reminded of the responsibility America holds to educate its newest generation of learners, a group far more mixed in ethnicity and language than ever before.#



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