Spanish for All? The Case for Bilingual Ed

by Domenico Maceri

Chicago, Illinois

April 15, 1999.

 Economic And Intellectual Benefits of Bilingualism

As the most populous American state, California influences what goes on in the rest of the country. Except in Texas, where people like to go their own way. California dumped bilingual education; Texas clings to it. And now a new proposal in the Texas state assembly would increase the divide between these two major states' educational language policies. Some Texans want to do more than just tolerate bilingualism. They want to make every kid who comes out of the school system bilingual.


Texas Rep. Rene Oliveira proposed a bill that would require Texas high school students to take two years of Spanish to graduate. The plan recognizes that we live in a global market and that Texans who speak nothing but English can't compete. The same ought to apply to Californians and, in fact, to the rest of the country.


Oliveira believes that since Texas does business with 19 Spanish-speaking countries, it's logical to have its students study Spanish. In addition, by 2030 Hispanics will become the majority in Texas and knowledge of Spanish will translate itself into dollars.


The advantages of speaking Spanish in Texas, California and many other parts of the country are obvious. First, there are economic benefits. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Miami reveals that linguistic knowledge among Hispanic families drastically affects family income. Families who spoke only Spanish had an average income of $ 18,000; those with only English, $32,000; and those with Spanish and English, $50,376. The figures were culled from 1990 census figures.


In addition to the dollar signs, studying Spanish (or some other language) will also make students better learners of all their subjects while they are still in school. Bilingual/bicultural kids have many advantages over monolingual ones because they possess what researchers call a "plasticity" of the brain. This trait is apparent in learning other languages. It's the first foreign language that is difficult. Learning Italian, Portuguese or French is relatively easy for someone who knows Spanish because they are related languages.


This ability to learn new languages translates itself into other domains. Bilingual/bicultural individuals internalize that just like there are two ways to say the same thing, there are two ways to learn new things or solve problems. Bilingual students develop a mental agility and flexibility about learning that monolinguals lack. This flexibility is vital in today's world, where employees are constantly expected to acquire new skills to stay abreast of technological changes.


Standardized tests confirm the intellectual advantage of students educated in two languages. A 14-year study by researchers at George Mason University found that students in dual-language schools that teach half the day in one language and the other half in a second language did better than students in other types of bilingual education programs and also outperformed native English speakers in English-only schools.


Although English and Spanish bilingualism may be easiest to achieve and most desirable, the practical and intellectual benefits of bilingualism may be reached with another language. French, Japanese or some other language could easily take the place of Spanish in some parts of the country.


Other countries understand very well the importance of languages.


With an economy aimed primarily at exporting, the Japanese firmly believe that in order to sell their products they have to know the customers--and that means the customers' language. In Japan, English is a basic subject from the earliest grades on. The Japanese know that learning languages requires a long time and they give their students all the time it takes.


Learning about the customers is not just a matter of learning their words. The study of culture--history, geography, politics, traditions--goes hand in hand with language. Languages and cultures are an essential component of an outwardly looking education system typical of Japan as well as that of major industrial countries.


In today's world, events in Iraq can have dramatic effects in California. A slide in Asian stock markets can trigger one in New York. To understand these events and be able to influence them we need linguistic and cultural knowledge that goes beyond English. Every American deserves that edge.