bilingualIn 1998, California, bolstered by a 31 percent Hispanic population—up from 26 percent in 1990—became the first U.S. state in which Anglo-Americans were no longer a majority. This news may shed light on a debate that has been brewing for some time in California and elsewhere in this country over a fundamental—if often overlooked—educational question: in what language should classes be conducted in areas populated by significant numbers of non-native English speakers?

The answer is at once complicated and fraught with emotion.

On one side is the bilingual camp, which argues that a student’s native language is the best tool he or she has to learn English. On the other side is the English-only camp, which believes that full immersion in English will best prepare non-native speakers for living and working in the United States.

Speak English!
One of the English-only group’s most vocal proponents is Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, a former gubernatorial candidate and the man responsible for getting English-only propositions on the ballot in California and Arizona in the last few years (both of which have now passed). Unz and others in favor of English-only education stress the importance of assimilation for economical purposes. “I have nothing against bilingual education,” Unz told the San Jose Mercury News in 1998, “but it just doesn’t work.”

Amidst much noise about the issue, California’s passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 mandated that classes in the California public school system be conducted only in English, and that’s when things really heated up.

The proposition, which Unz himself co-authored, states, among its many points, that, “young immigrant children can easily acquire full fluency in a new language, such as English, if they are heavily exposed to that language in the classroom at an early age… ” This point, according to opponents, is anything but Absolute Truth.

The Debate
Two documents published in 2000 on the effects of Proposition 227 reveal conflicting results in regards to the proposition’s success. The first, released in May by the University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute of UC-Santa Barbara, argues that the implementation of the program has merely exacerbated the inconsistency of instruction already cited as a problem in California public schools. Describing the effect the policy has had in the classroom, the authors write: “Teachers adopt a broad range of interpretations of and responses to the initiative based on their previous experience, professional preparation, pedagogical and moral beliefs, school interpretation of the mandate and degree of involvement with setting and enforcing policy, and the ‘imposed’ nature of the policy itself, among other factors.”

A second study, this one by the California Department of Education (CDE), has examined the results of Stanford Achievement Test scores (ninth edition) before and after the introduction of Proposition 227, paying special attention to limited English proficiency (LEP) students. What the results suggest, according to an August press release, is “good news.”

“Results for our English learners,” the release says, “although lower than results for English proficient students, increased in almost all subjects and grade levels.”

Not So Fast
Dr. Jill Kerper Mora, an associate professor at San Diego State University’s School of Teacher Education, is one of many who are committing great amounts of time and energy to scrutinizing the logic and arguments of Proposition 227 and the anti-bilingual movement. The CDE study, she says, is “poppycock.”

“To begin with, only 18 percent of all the LEP students in the state switched from bilingual instruction to English immersion. Yet test scores went up for all of them, in Spanish as well as in English. In addition, there has been no control for socioeconomic conditions, student transience rates, teacher quality and a host of other factors in reporting differences between school districts and schools in their SAT-9 scores. There is no empirical evidence to support claims that 227 has benefited bilingual learners.”

Dr. Stephen Krashen, professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California’s School of Education, has been battling the 227 movement from a scientific perspective. His 1999 book, Condemned Without a Trial, highlights his many arguments against immersion. According to his own research and that of others, a student’s primary language is an integral—fundamental, even—part of any second language acquisition. As Krashen pointed out in an address at the Georgetown University “Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics” in 1999 in criticism of English-only curricula, “It is extremely difficult to teach subject matter to those who have acquired none or little of the language.”

One of Krashen’s models of how best to teach second language acquisition is more of a multi-tiered bilingual tract in which those with the least amount of English study abstract content in their native language while getting gradual exposure to English in “sheltered” areas, such as math and science. Gradually, as English proficiency improves, more and more of these students’ classes would be delivered in English until, finally, the only subjects left in the native tongue would be language and culture.

“We are talking about how best to organize instruction to teach language, literacy, and academic content throughout children’s K-12 schooling.”

Evidence v. Opinion—What’s Right?

“Dr. Krashen conflates self-esteem with learning,” says Jim Boulet, executive director of English First, a non-profit organization based in Virginia dedicated to making “English America’s official language.”

They are not the same things, Boulet argues. “Think of the problem like this,” he says. “It’s hard to be told that your language and culture are not as valued [economically] as English, but when would you rather hear it? In kindergarten, when you can still do something about it, or at nineteen, when you’re applying for a job?”

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C., has pointed out in Phi Delta Kappan that the issue has become convoluted in every way, and its wholesale entrance into the political arena has only thickened the quagmire. “In a country as large as ours,” he writes, “with as varied experience, there is virtually no limit to the anecdotes and symbols that can be invoked as substitutes for evidence.”

Where Does Science Stand?
Add to the debate the discussion about the “window of opportunity,” during which it is best to learn a second language. It is generally thought that this “window” begins closing sometime before early adolescence; some say as early as age seven. But San Diego State University’s Dr. Mora says that arguments about windows of opportunity for language acquisition, while certainly relevant to the discussion, are missing the point. “There is strong evidence,” she says, “that children before the ages of 12 to14 become bilingual more easily and completely than adults. However, in the case of bilingual education v. immersion, we are not just talking about what it takes to become proficient in a second language. We are talking about how best to organize instruction to teach language, literacy, and academic content throughout children’s K-12 schooling.”

While it is a question that might ultimately be in the hands of Science, the scientific evidence thus far seems far from conclusive. In an assessment report for the California State Library on bilingual education, Patricia L. de Cos writes: “Researchers are careful to point out that while they may be able to identify areas of the brain that are used for processing a second language, this does not directly translate into effective teaching and learning methods.”

De Cos adds, “In any event, more research is needed for better understanding the relationship between brain activities and acquiring/learning a second language.”

California Department of Education, News Release, “Eastin Releases Additional STAR 2000 Test Results.” August 15, 2000.

de Cos, Patricia L. Educating California’s Immigrant Children: An Overview of Bilingual Education. June 1999. California State Library.

Gandara, Patricia, et al. “The Initial Impact of Proposition 227 on the Instruction of English Learners,” University of California Minority Research Institution of UC-Santa Barbara.

Rothstein, Richard. “Bilingual Education,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 01, 1998.