Memo to The American Conservative: Bilingual Education Will Not Actually Make Californians Bilingual

A writer at The American Conservative website has a long discussion on the supposed perils of bilingualism that, he believes, may soon come to pass now that California has voted to allow schools to use bilingual education in the teaching of English.

Unhappily, the writer does not appear to have any actual knowledge of bilingual education programs. I responded on the TAC website’s comments section (as of this post’s publishing, not approved by the moderator). Here is a slightly edited version:

It would help if Mr. Richwine familiarized himself with how actual bilingual education programs work, and what their goals are. He seems to assume that bilingual education has as its primary goal making students fluent in two languages. If you go no further than the name of the program, you can be excused for thinking this. But if you’re going to write a long piece for a national journal of opinion, I would hope you’d do a bit better than that.

Nearly all bilingual programs in California before the ban were *transitional* bilingual education (TBE) programs, meaning that they did NOT aim at maintaining the home language at all (and in fact, did not do so in practice).

The purpose of TBE was, and is, to teach English, period.

This entire discussion is interesting but completely off-topic, in that bilingual programs rarely make anyone bilingual, nor do they seek to keep students fluent in their home language. Surveys on language use over the past 30 years have not shown any major shift away from English, particularly among the children of immigrants, who typically “shift” to English so quickly that they are often unable to read and write in their home language by the time they get to high school. English is in no danger in California or any other state.

With all due respect to the previous comment from my esteemed colleague, Dr. Rosalie Porter, the research on the effectiveness of bilingual education has shown time and time again that it is a superior way to *teach English* versus so-called “immersion” programs. Dr. Jay Greene, hardly a left-liberal academic, confirmed this in his own meta-analysis of the research several years ago. For more on the theory and effectiveness of bilingual education, including reviews of the experimental research on it, see the website of Dr. Steve Krashen, emeritus professor of linguistics and education at USC.

Whatever one thinks of the political and cultural ramifications of bilingualism, they have almost nothing to do with actual practice of bilingual education, which does not – to repeat – usually aim at bilingualism at all. (The exception to this is two-way or “maintenance” bilingual programs, which are very, very small in number.)

I am not arguing, of course, that the author’s contentions about the value of bilingualism are correct. But the first order of business is to get people to understand that most bilingual education programs do not typically by design produce bilinguals. Their goal is English.

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