What happened to bilingual education?
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
Discussions of the benefits of a bilingual education often emphasize how it improves critical thinking, encourages a wider understanding of others and develops unique problem-solving skills. These are all true, but perhaps the most important aspect for many parents is that bilingually educated children make more money in adulthood.
But that being so, why is bilingual education reserved primarily for students who come from money? Isn’t this part of the whole inequality controversy in this country where the richer you are, the more structural advantages you receive and therefore the more advantages you pass on to your children?
A Lingering Suspicion
If bilingual educations aren’t distributed evenly across the economic spectrum in this country, one of the reasons is that, historically, many Americans have been somewhat suspicious of teaching their children a foreign language.
In 1998, for example, nominally liberal Californians passed Prop 227, making it illegal in K-12 education to teach any language but English. This, according to the bill’s organizers, would help "bring Californians together."
What it did do for the following 18 years, until the law was largely revoked in 2016, was provide additional incentives for wealthy parents to send their kids to private K-12 schools that could work around the prohibition by creating a document supporting a "specific language need."
Consequently, two teenage daughters of my upper-middle-class professional California friends have been taught in three languages — English, French and Mandarin — since the first grade. But even today, 80% of public school students across the country learn only in English.
Who Learns What?
Even then, few K-12 public schools offer more than Spanish (an overwhelming 69% of all language learning), French (12%) and German (3%). Chinese, a language with obvious political and economic significance in the 21st century, is taught to only 2% of grade-school children taking a foreign language.
Since that number’s only one in five students to begin with, less than one-half of 1% of U.S. grade school children receive any Chinese language instruction. This contrasts with over 86% of mainland Chinese students who learn English in grade school.
And while there are good cultural reasons for U.S. students learning Spanish, as it happens, mastering Spanish does less for your child’s eventual earnings than any other foreign language. There is currently a high demand in this country for Arabic speakers and language teachers, for example, but the language is taught to only a small fraction of 1% of U.S. students.
Too Little, Too Late
Americans have recently become more aware of both the personal and economic advantages of a bilingual education and its strategic importance. Unfortunately, there’s little chance in the near future of bilingual education become the norm in this country, especially in public k-12 schools.
For one thing, there are long waiting lists to get into the few schools fully supporting bilingual educations of the kind my friends’ daughters received, where French is the daily language of most classrooms and where immersive Mandarin courses have made the girls sufficiently fluent that they use it as their "private language," safe from (monolingual) adult ears.
But more than anything else, there just aren’t enough teachers — not just of foreign languages, but K-12 teachers generally — and especially in the South and West. Nor will this foreign language teacher shortage be alleviated soon.
As a country, we are just beginning to see how our students’ language abilities relate to our competitiveness. To go from the fraction of 1% of K-12 students now learning Chinese, for instance, to the equivalent 86% of Chinese students now learning English — if it ever happens — will take years of teacher training.
In 2017, there were more than 200 K-12 Mandarin language learning programs in the U.S., up from 10 in 2009. This is an exponential increase, but it’s still less than 0.1% of U.S. K-12 classrooms.
In this regard, we are still behind every first-world country. Catching up may be more a matter of generations than years and, meanwhile, our competitive disadvantage will be significant.
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