Imagine being an immigrant from a country where the Spanish language is practically ubiquitous. Now imagine trying to learn in an American school using a foreign language and being expected to move into the mainstream with the other children. For most English-proficient people, this scenario may be hard to visualize. However, this is an all too common situation for many children whose families immigrate to the United States. There have been several debates over the best way to educate limited-English-proficient (LEP) children. One side of the debate argues that an initial bilingual education, one that is taught partially in the student s native tongue, is the most effective method.
The other side of the debate contends that immersion- the complete immersion of the student in the English language- is the preferable method. Opponents of bilingual education have long argued that the goal of the schools is to get students into the mainstream as soon as possible. According to this view, the faster the children are exposed to English and the more English they are exposed to, the more immediate the acquisition of the language and the more rapidly they can move into the mainstream with fellow students. However, bilingual education supporters contend that the goal of schools should place effectiveness over speed.
A bilingual education, proponents state, would allow students to learn English without sacrificing content knowledge. It may take longer for students to master the English language, but it is more important for students to retain the material than it is to speak proficient English without remembering learned material. A second argument held by opponents of bilingual education states that LEP students, when placed in a bilingual education program, tend to languish in the program instead of becoming proficient in the English language. One mother from the Dominican Republic had her daughter placed in an English-as-a-second- language (ESL) program where all instruction is in English because she did not want her daughter to have Spanish as a crutch in high school.
Other critics point out that bilingual education keeps students in a cycle of native language dependency that ultimately inhibits significant progress in English language acquisition. On the other hand, supporters of bilingual education counter that a bilingual education actually encourages stronger literacy skills in the long term. If the students first learn to read in the language they are fluent in and then transfer skills over to English- their second language- they will in the long run develop stronger literacy skills because they will not have lost any learned material. A third argument of bilingual education s critics points out that bilingual education is ineffective and difficult to carry out, given that most bilingual education teachers are LEP themselves.
Proponents of bilingual education think otherwise: Not only does this let LEP students and teachers help each other, but it also reduces the amount of stress and intimidation a LEP student may face when being taught by an American teacher. Another point made by this side states that in an increasingly global society like the one we live in today, schools, far from discouraging native-language retention, should work to help students maintain their native tongues, even as they also teach them English.