Throwing out the Babbling Baby with the Bilingual Bathwater

Governor Mitt Romney yesterday moved to end ”two-way” bilingual education programs.
I am no fan of what in American education is called bilingual education segregated
academic instruction in languages other than English. But this disastrous decision
eliminates the few programs that are truly bilingual; mixed groups of native
and non-native speakers of English learning together in multiple languages simultaneously.
These programs are absolutely necessary if the United States is to remove the
biggest impediment to true globalization of the American dream. The fact is,
the US is the most mono-linguistic and language bigoted country in the world.

America is the only country where the majority of people are proud that they
only speak one language. The prevailing attitude is "Everyone in the world
worth talking to speaks English anyway, so why waste time learning another
This is so wrong-headed it would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

In most countries, all educated people do speak English in addition to their
first languages. Many also know a third or fourth. Even in so-called less-developed
countries where most people do not learn English they usually learn a local language
before a national uber-language like Hindi or Mandarin. In the high reaches of
the Andes the formally uneducated Native Americans speak Quechua and Spanish.

The many advantages to being multilingual are not only communicative but also
cognitive and creative. Being multilingual not only lets you talk to
more people, but to think about things in more varied ways, and to understand
the world more completely.

What America calls "bilingual education" is something else. Coming back from
10 years in South America, my then six-year-old son spoke only Spanish. I could
have put him in the "Amigos" program where he would have been studying in Spanish
with ESL on the side. No way, I told the principal, immersion all the way,
is the way to go.

By the end of the first week my kid could say two words in English: "Yep" and
"Nope". But he could say those two words absolutely flawlessly, with no discernable
accent. He could fit in on the playground and nobody looked at him twice, as
long as he didn’t have to say anything but Yep and Nope.

The desire to fit in is a tremendously powerful motivation, especially for kids.
Within 6 weeks my son could participate in all of the activities in and out of
the classroom, and by the end of that first school year his spoken English was
native-fluent (although his reading and writing skills took longer to catch up).

As a professional educator I believe that most conventional bilingual ed programs
are counter-productive crutches rather than linguistic training wheels, keeping
non-native English speakers separate from the other students and delaying (sometimes
forever) their full integration into US education and social contexts. Although
every kid is different and learns and adapts at different rates and in different
ways, mainstreaming as soon as possible should be the objective and in the far
majority of cases it should be possible within a calendar year.

On the other hand, the state of American kids learning non-English languages
is abysmal. Programs like the ones the Governor just eliminated were among the
few promising lights at the end of our unfortunate monolingual tunnel.