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Educator attacks 'double standard' in bilingual education

STANFORD -- Double standards and linguistic myths beset America's effort to educate its language-minority children, education Prof. Kenji Hakuta told a Stanford University centennial class on "Bilingual Education" on Monday, Sept. 30.

"Part of the problem with bilingual education is that it is not just a curriculum issue -- it's a political and national- identity issue," Hakuta said. "That's what makes everybody an 'expert' on it. Everyone has some ownership in this issue."

Citing the work of other educators and linguists, Hakuta described two kinds of bilingualism.

In "subtractive bilingualism," the new language supplants the native language. This kind of bilingualism is usual among successive U.S. immigrant generations, who eventually become monolingual English-speakers.

With "additive bilingualism," the native language is maintained while the second language is used for enrichment. For example, English-speakers in Quebec often learn French to upgrade business skills. For these bilinguals, a second language is often seen as prestigious.

In the United States, Hakuta said, subtractive bilingualism is the goal we often set for those whose native language is viewed as a barrier to academic and economic success -- Hispanics, Vietnamese, Filipinos and others. Additive bilingualism -- whether in Latin, classical Greek, French, Italian or other languages -- is seen as an academic boon for non-minority, middle- class students.

"We see bilingualism as good for some children, but not for others," said Hakuta. "Expectations about the speed of second- language learning are different, too."

In middle-class French immersion classes, for example, "expectations are not that severe," Hakuta said. Even after several years, a student is not expected to be a fluent speaker of the new language.

But Asian or Hispanic immigrant children are often viewed as failures "unless we can get them out of bilingual instruction in two or three years."

One alumna participating in the class, Patricia Montiel Overall (PhD '78), said that Tucson school boards are mandating foreign language instruction for grades K-8, yet striving to take away the first language of non-English speakers.

"Foreign language education and bilingual education have been seen as totally different things," she said.

Hakuta suggested that hostility toward bilingual education may be rooted in racial and ethnic prejudices and the conviction that immigrants "aren't as smart" as Americans. Such attitudes go back to the 1920s and 1930s, when Eastern and Southern European immigrants flooded America.

C.C. Brigham, in Study of American Intelligence (1923), chronicled the declining IQ scores of successive military recruitments after blacks and foreign-born whites were drafted. Hakuta said the study concluded that "we should restrict immigration to prevent the degradation of intelligence."

A 1926 study by F.J. Goodenough showed that the more a native language is retained in the home, the lower the IQ scores. The study reached two conclusions: that retention of a foreign language is the "chief factor in producing mental retardation," and that "national groups whose average intellectual ability is inferior do not readily learn the new language."

Refuting myths

Although today's attitudes may not be as overtly racist, they may be just as faulty, Hakuta said. He cited what he called linguistic myths, such as, "Hispanics are refusing to learn English."

Hakuta said that Hispanics, in particular, are often accused of "clinging" to their language and creating "linguistic ghettos" -- the same accusation, he noted, that was once leveled at Russian Jews. However, he said, research shows that Spanish as a home language declines markedly with the children of the first U.S.-born Hispanics, just as it does for other languages and ethnic groups.

Hakuta cited the work of a census demographer who predicted that, barring new immigration, the number of Spanish speakers will remain constant for the next 15 years, then decline precipitously until Spanish assumes the same status as other immigrant languages in the United States, "which is really hard to believe until you look at the research."

The perception that Hispanics are stubbornly retaining their monolingual Spanish status, Hakuta said, is caused by continual waves of new immigrants to the United States from Mexico and Central and South America.

Another myth holds that "children are "linguistic sponges."

Hakuta said research shows that children need between 2 and 7 years to master enough English to benefit from English- language instruction.

A similar myth is that "the younger children are, the faster they learn a second language." In fact, Hakuta said, although younger children are better able to acquire the accent of a second language, older students are better able to master grammar, vocabulary and comprehension -- that is, to attain a working knowledge of the new language.

For this reason, Hakuta deplored the lack of bilingual programs for middle- and high school students, who are also more "ready to appreciate their heritage and language -- and the employment benefits bilingualism might offer."

"I'd like to see, for example, language issues brought up by high school social studies teachers," he said.

Hakuta praised one Salinas high school teacher who shows her students "people who make a living by being bilingual" -- for example, court interpreters and translators. She helps her Hispanic students translate course materials into Spanish for the benefit of those who speak no English at all. Recently, she also helped her students translate and dub a Smithsonian documentary on artist Diego Rivera.

On the question, "When is a language 'acquired'?" Hakuta said the public also underestimates the complexity of language acquisition. Enough English to hold a conversation may not be enough English to attend an algebra class.

"To be 'proficient,' to be 'fluent,' to 'know' means different things," Hakuta said. "Bilingual children are often informally evaluated in conversational skills, but not in how well they can use English in schools."

These evaluations are often motivated by political pressures to get children out of bilingual programs and into mainstream English instruction.

According to Hakuta, the aims of current bilingual education are "extremely ambiguous at best." Rather than capitalizing on the strengths of true bilingualism, most are designed to create monolingual English-speakers as quickly as possible.



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