Not One, But Many Languages

On Sunday, August 10, the Times-Union editorial writers (“ One language”) made a predictably uninformed foray into the issues of bilingual education and the “official English” movement. There are many things to say, one being that “bilingual education” is not a single thing; there are many models for teaching and learning in multilingual school communities. But first, I want to address two false statements about bilingual education that appeared in the editorial:

(1) “Bilingual education […] has been a disaster.”

This assertion is based on a report on bilingual education in the New York City schools that was issued by the Lexington Institute, a conservative “think-tank.” The fact is, of course, that any program, however potentially beneficial, can be a “disaster” if it is under-funded, improperly administered, and so on. But the truth about bilingual education in New York, and elsewhere, is that it has been anything but a “disaster” for thousands of young people whose first language was something other than English. The Ell Subcommittee Research Studies Progress Report analyzed data from 1991-99 and concluded that:

New York City’s bilingual/ESL programs have demonstrated substantial effectiveness in developing the English language proficiency of ELLs [English language learners] and ensuring their success in the educational mainstream.

Similar results have been obtained all over the country, and for different kinds of bilingual programs. For some examples of successful bilingual programs go to here.

(2) “…[S]tudies show immigrant children fare much better in English immersion programs.”

It is true that certain kinds of immersion can be very effective, if children are given the support and resources they need. One of the successful schools described on the web site above is a “dual immersion” program for children whose native languages are Spanish and English. I don’t have the space to describe this program here, except to say that it’s not likely what the TU editors have in mind by “immersion”: the draconian “sink or swim” experience within which a few succeed but many do not. For the TU editors, and conservatives in general, “fare much better” is code for “manage to become just proficient enough in English to provide underpaid labor for an exploitative system.”

The TU editors also expressed support for H.R. 997, another in a series of attempts to have English declared the “official language” of the US. This bill is an example of the xenophobia and racism underlying H.R. 123, the "English Language Empowerment Act of 1996,” legislation that even Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican representatives of perhaps the most right-wing population in the country, spoke against at the time. Diaz-Balart said, in part, “Democracy not only requires governing by the majority, but respect for the minority. This legislation, which constitutes aggression on linguistic minorities in this country, is anti-Democratic.”

I could write much more on this topic, but I know the TU editors will allow me only so much space, if they publish this criticism at all. So I will finish by pointing readers to the following internet resources. The first contains good, factual information about bilingual education:

The National Association for Bilingual Education

The following site covers both bilingual education and the “official English” controversy.

Jim Crawford’s “Language Policy Web Site”

Finally, the Linguistic Society of America has a statement on “official English” at:

Ronald Kephart
Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of North Florida


Written August 11, 2003