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Badmouthing Bilingualism: A Debate Looses Sight of What's at Stake

On March 31, 2007, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, leaned over a podium and, pointing his finger emphatically, spilled out, “We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and so they learn the language of prosperity…not the language of living in a ghetto.” 
Obviously not the most politically savvy of statements in the contemporary United States, Gingrich was quick to recognize his “poor choice of words” at the various public appear-ances that followed. His semantic slip, how-ever, is evidence of a running theme found in the heated debate over bilingual education programs. The ever-growing presence of lan-guages other than English in the United States is seen to pose a danger to the social fabric of the nation. Immigrants, their languages and their isolation in specific neighborhoods threaten the moral and economic foundations of the country. 
What is most worrisome about Gingrich’s comment and others like it is their lack of fo-cus on the real issues at hand. When politi-cians and activists start using charged phrases like “language of the ghetto,” they mask the more substantive facts about bilingual educa-tion policy. Instead of asking whether or not children are learning English, they use emo-tionally loaded terms to make political gains. 
These outbursts also place people living in the United States into categories of the “immi-grant” versus the “common American.” In a United States that is, and has always been, cul-turally and ethnically diverse such categoriza-tions are painfully divisive. Public figures en-gaged in debate should use the limelight to draw Americans together, not to play on xenophobic fears of immigrant’s differences.
Defining Bilingualism
There are three models of English acquisition: English immersion, bilingual, and dual lan-guage programs. Advocates of English immer-sion argue that the most efficient way for chil-dren to learn English is to be exposed con-stantly and exclusively to the language. They propose that children who continue to receive instruction in their native languages achieve proficiency in English at a slower pace. 
On the contrary, supporters of bilingual pro-grams hold that programs which neglect to provide resources in a child’s native language limit that child’s ability to keep up with coursework. They suggest some instruction in native languages to make sure that students do not fall behind. 
Finally, dual language programs incorporate both English and non-English speaking stu-dents into the same classes with the goal that all become fluent in both languages. These people would then be called bilinguals.
In the 19th century with large and newly settled immigrant populations from Europe, bilingual programs were widely implemented in schools. These programs began to be elimi-nated after World War I, a trend often attrib-uted to rising nationalism and xenophobia. The bilingual movement saw a rebirth during the Civil Rights era with the passage of the Bi-lingual Education Act of 1968, which required instruction in native language and culture. This act was reauthorized in 1974. Since then a de-bate has raged over the pros and cons of the re-implementation of bilingual programs.
Nasty Debates Touch on Ingrained Fears
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz started an initiative to abolish bilingual education programs and replace them with English im-mersion in California public schools. In 1998 Unz’s Proposition 227 passed with 61% of voters in favor. In 2000 a very similar proposi-tion in Arizona was also victorious. Inspired by these successes Unz began pushing for re-form in Colorado and Massachusetts in 2002. He introduced initiatives that would ban bilin-gual education in all but the “most extreme circumstances.”
Much of the success of Unz’s “English for the Children” campaigns in California and Ari-zona can be attributed to his effective dis-semination of statistics. They seemed to show that existing bilingual education programs had a “95 percent failure rate” annually in develop-ing English proficiency amongst their stu-dents. The use of statistics in the debate over bilingual education proves to be a messy affair. It is extremely difficult to control for outside factors (such as socio-economic status, whether or not English is spoken in the home, etc.) when measuring a student’s ability to learn English. Bilingual education advocates and opponents both claim that the opposite side distorts and twists numbers to achieve its goals. The “Unz Initiative,” as it was often re-ferred to, also relied on depictions of bilingual education proponents such as the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) as “greed-fed bureaucracies.” NABE was al-leged to be more interested in protecting their own financial interests than in discovering the best policies for educating children.
In contrast to the emphasis on statistic-based arguments in California and Arizona, the campaigns in Colorado and Massachusetts were grounded much more heavily on emo-tional appeals. They relied on xenophobic atti-tudes already prevalent in local communities. In Colorado, as the vote on the proposition neared, the English immersion advocates had well over the necessary percentage points to pass their initiative. A few weeks before the vote advocates of bilingual education released a series of advertisements which would have a profound effect on the outcome at the polls.
As haunting music fills the background the camera zooms in on the faces of “dark-eyed children.” A narrator’s voice chimes in ex-plaining that under English immersion pro-grams “children who speak little to no Eng-lish, largely Hispanic students, would disrupt the education of ‘your children’” (Harvard Law Review). In the two weeks that followed the re-lease of these advertisements support for the English immersion initiative dropped twenty percentage points and ultimately failed. The creator of the advertisements, a bilingual ad-vocacy group called English Plus, have not been shy in admitting that the spots were “meant to unsettle Anglos,” whose children were to be “threatened” by the presence of non-English speaking kids in their classes.
Most surprising about these advertisements is the fact that a group which sees itself as pro-immigrant relies on a distorted image of the inassimilable immigrant, effectively reinforcing segregationist ideas. As Newt Gingrich’s comment shows, such representations of the immigrant population are often employed by the English immersion movement as well. A constructive debate over bilingual education, it seems, is masked by a tendency in public me-dia to tickle underlying fears and perceptions of a growing immigrant population whose presence undermines the fundamental social order.
Lost in a debate that relies on societal (mis)perceptions are two important questions which should be driving the conversation. Which programs most effectively teach chil-dren English and allow them to keep pace in school? How can the United States incorpo-rate an immigrant population which is here to stay?
Getting to the Source
Herman Badillo is one of the strongest and most controversial figures in bilingual educa-tion policy. Born in Puerto Rico he immi-grated to the United States at the age of eleven. Badillo would go on to become the first Puerto Rican Congressman and a dedi-cated supporter of bilingual education pro-grams. He was a major force behind the pas-sage of the Bilingual Education Act of 1974.
“I supported a comprehensive bilingual educa-tion bill that would offer course content in the native language of the English Language Learner students so that they could keep up in course work with the other students. The pro-gram was meant only to last 1 to 1½ years un-til kids could fully learn English,” Badillo says of his original vision. In his view something has gone awry. “Bilingual education is being abused in the United States by those people who are keeping kids in bilingual programs for up to 8 years,” he laments. He notices a trend that students learning English are being trapped within bilingual education programs that are not achieving English proficiency rap-idly.
“Bilingual education, as I said, became mono-lingual education not in English but in Spanish or whatever the other language might be,” he writes in his book One Nation, One Standard. 
This failure is also recognized by Anamul Haque, whose sister participates in a bilingual program in a New York City public school. He relates that English learners take their core classes in their native languages with only minimal portions of time devoted to English acquisition. They develop conversational skills in English but not the level necessary for an academic setting. Margaret Cohee, a public school teacher working under an English im-mersion program, states that “bilingual educa-tion can be done badly. I have students that have come out of studying for three or four years in New York City schools and still can’t speak English.”
But if bilingual education has strayed from its original goals, strict English immersion does not seem to be the answer either. As Donaldo Macedo, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education at the University of Mas-sachusetts-Boston, points out in his article “The Colonialism of the English Only Move-ment”, the English immersion proponents tend to view the acquisition of English as “education itself.” They refuse to recognize any benefits in using a student’s native lan-guage to develop their cognitive abilities and individual self-esteem. If a student’s native language is completely inexistent in educa-tional settings it could have the effect of dis-crediting the language and the child’s sense of his/her own heritage. Children who begin with a proficiency in another language also have the unique opportunity to become fluent in two languages. Youngsters should be en-couraged to retain their language skills and capitalize on this opportunity. English immer-sion programs fail to recognize this fact while paradoxically supporting foreign language programs.
Dual language programs are in a class of their own. “The most practical solution to the problem of bilingualism is the ‘dual language’ approach,” says Badillo in his book, “which seems to be gaining adherents. This program integrates students who are native English speakers in classes with native speakers of an-other language and provides instruction to both groups in both languages.” Dual lan-guage programs ideally start in kindergarten and address the short-comings of both bilin-gual and English immersion models. They are effective because they neither allow children learning English to remain in monolingual set-tings nor do they eliminate native languages from the program altogether. Fluency in both languages is a goal for every child. Children from all backgrounds learn together and from each other.  
Unfortunately, dual language programs are underrepresented in current debate. Because the debate has become so politicized its par-ticipants focus more on securing victories for their side rather than trying to implement the most effective model. Children’s needs are completely disregarded in this political game.
Building on Bilingualism
The second tragedy of the bilingual debate is its reproduction of xenophobic representa-tions of immigrants and their influence on so-ciety. Rather than working to incorporate these newcomers, politicians and activists use perceptions of an inassimilable population and threatening cultural challenge. This creates the image that a “mainstream” America can only exist apart from its immigrants, deepening di-vides between groups.
The experiences of immigrants and their chil-dren show this image to be untrue. Bilingual-ism and identifying with one’s country of ori-gin does not exclude one from being Ameri-can. Yvette Choy, whose parents immigrated to the United States from China before she was born, says “I feel it be cohesive. I still feel Chinese. You still notice things. But it never gets in my way. It’s beneficial.”
Diana Jou arrived from Taiwan at the age of four. Her experience shows another advantage of being fluent in two languages. Although she notes that “people tend to live in enclaves,” her bilingualism allows her to bridge gaps be-tween the Mandarin-speaking community in Los Angeles and the general English-speaking community. These stories depict an America in which people can identify both as Ameri-cans and relate to their heritage. 
We still have a long way to go towards under-standing each other in the United States. Jou thinks that mutual understanding of different heritages in America only works on a superfi-cial level. She says that sometimes in America “multiculturalism means eating a taco.” The superficiality of this understanding is repre-sented by a debate over bilingual education which draws an image of a homogenous America under threat. Reality tells a different story. A constructive debate on bilingual edu-cation would not only pinpoint the most ef-fective ways of teaching our children English. It would also provide avenues towards an un-derstanding of an America which healthily in-corporates its diverse population.
Considering the way in which the debate over bilingual education has played out in the pub-lic media, there is understandable mystery and fear surrounding the subject. Advocates on both sides have strayed from the real issues. They mask more substantive questions about bilingual education (e.g. are children learning English?) with rhetoric that will gain them po-litical victories. It is our public school children who ultimately loose out under this scenario. Both bilingual education and English immer-sion advocates must begin to think creatively about the best ways to guarantee all of our children the best education. Newer models such as dual language programs move in this direction, but they must be accepted into the mainstream debate before they can take seri-ous root.
The debate over bilingual education has not only been injurious to the children directly af-fected by legislation. The language employed across the board relies on a reproduction and legitimization of xenophobic ideas within the United States. Immigrants and their children are portrayed as inassimilable and dangerous elements which threaten the fabric of society. 
The United States has always been a country of immigrants and immigration. Public debate should not focus on immigrants as ominous populations that sit on the fringes of our soci-ety. It should recognize that immigrants are an essential part of America and should strive to create a political atmosphere in which the divi-sions which currently exist between peoples can be overcome. Those debating bilingual education would be wise to start examining their own use of language so that we can con-struct an America inclusive of all its Ameri-cans. 



Castro, Max J. “Bilingual Education and Proposition 227: What Really Happened?” in Vista Magazine. August 1998.
Macedo, Donaldo. “The Colonialism of the English Only Movement”, in: Educational Re-searcher, Vol. 29, No. 3, April 2000, pp. 15-24.
Unknown Author. “Education. English Im-mersion. Colorado Voters Reject an English Immersion Ballot Initiative”, in: Harvard Law Review, Vol. 116, No. 8. June, 2003, pp. 2709-2716


Badillo, Herman. Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow, Former Congressman (August 2, 2007).
Choy, Yvette. Second Generation Chinese Immigrant (August 6, 2007).
Jou, Diana. Immigrant from Taiwan (August 4, 2007).
Haque, Anamul. Human Rights Student’s Ini-tiative Fellow (August 5, 2007).
Cohee, Margaret. Teacher of English as a Sec-ond Language at Patchogue-Medford High School (July 31, 2007).


Badillo, Herman. One Nation, One Standard: An Ex-Liberal on How Hispanics Can Succeed Just Like Other Immigrant Groups. Penguin Books Ltd. London, England. 2006.


http://youtube.com/watch?v=HAt33vbtx1Y, Newt Gingrich’s statement, August 8, 2007.
http://www.proenglish.org/main/gen-info.htm, English-only advocacy group, August 8, 2007.
http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/JWCRAWFORD/engplus.htm, About the English Plus movement, August 8, 2007.
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