Home >> A Issues >> ¿Habla usted inglés?

Search form

Habla usted ingls?
Share StarrPoints

Next month, residents of Colorado and Massachusetts will vote on proposals to replace bilingual education with English immersion in the states' public schools. Debate over the proposal has been loud and contentious, and each side has reams of research supporting its position. The voters have a difficult decision to make.

A few years ago, a friend who teaches social studies in an inner city middle school told me about one of his 7th grade students. The boy, whose family was from Puerto Rico, had spent seven years in his elementary schools bilingual program. Because seven years of bilingual education was the district limit, the middle school was required to place him in English-speaking classes. Unfortunately, the boy spoke almost no English -- although he had lived his entire life in the northeastern United States. In fact, he had been born there.

Join Discussion
Look What She Starr-ted!

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for almost a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

Previous StarrPoints

The boy's family, however, spoke only Spanish. He lived in an Hispanic section of the city, where the shopkeepers spoke Spanish to their customers. He grew up in a city with a large Hispanic population, where all government offices, organizations, and businesses provided services in both English and Spanish. He attended a school where most teachers and administrators spoke Spanish. He studied in classes -- taught in Spanish -- with other students who spoke only Spanish. He played with Spanish-speaking children during recess and after school. He attended English language classes, of course, as part of his school's bilingual program, but with no clear need to learn English, that boy, like many of his classmates, simply failed to do so.

I dont know what happened to that student. Possibly, faced in middle school with the need to learn English, he did so. More likely, confronted with middle school level courses presented in a language he could neither speak nor understand he, like many of his classmates, simply gave up.

Language experts tell us that young children learn new languages easily, because their still-developing brains are capable of growing the additional neural connections most conducive to language learning. The ability to form neural connections begins to diminish, and the brain starts to shed connections that are not being used, around the age of 12, however. At that point, the window of opportunity for easy language learning closes. For my friend's middle school student, it was probably too late. The real tragedy is that he is not alone.

The other day, I read an article in the Rocky Mountain News about Yabileth Ronquillo.

Yabileth is news because next month, residents of Colorado (and Massachusetts) will vote on proposals to replace bilingual education with immersion programs -- in which students are taught entirely in English. The debate over whether bilingual or immersion programs are better for Yabileth, Jos, and children like them has been loud and contentious. Each side has reams of research supporting its position; each has glowing success stories to share; each warns of the consequences of selecting the wrong instructional strategy. Voters in those two states have a difficult decision to make.

For me, however, the choice is simple. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau: "The proportion of Hispanics ages 16 to 19 who dropped out or never attended high school surged by more than 50 percent in the 1990s. ... In 2000, approximately 1.56 million U.S. residents ages 16 to 19 were not high school graduates and not enrolled in school. Of that total, nearly 34 percent were Hispanic -- up from 22 percent in 1990." (Source: The National Center for Policy Analysis) I wonder how many of those more than 500,000 Hispanic teenagers speak fluent English?

According to the Census Bureau figures, the Hispanic population in the United States grew to 35.3 million during the 1990s. Bilingual education, whatever educational benefits it has to offer, already has produced too many Jos Montoyas and Yabileth Ronquillos. We cannot afford any more.