To make any language 'official,' teach it well
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Jun. 11, 2006



The U.S. Senate voted to make English the official national language. But while lawmakers and pundits debate the economic and moral implications of such legislation, some Americans have a more pressing problem.

The 5.5 million English learners in the United States are being denied their best opportunity to adopt the language. The uphill challenges that are their future ought to be the crisis driving this debate. Despite the thousands of words printed on assimilation and immigration in the past few weeks, the plight of these children has mostly been ignored.

For decades, millions of immigrant students, particularly Spanish-speakers, have been isolated in bilingual education programs. These children spend lost of the day in separate classrooms, taught overwhelmingly in their native languages. Some hear as little as an hour of English each day.

Segregation between blacks and whites is unacceptable in America today. But we tolerate -- even encourage -- segregation between native English-speakers and non-native English-speakers. This separation doesn't help immigrant children or the country as a whole.

The Senate also declared English as America's "common and unifying" language. That's true -- speaking the same language often does bring a population together.

It allows everyone to communicate with one another and share in the common culture.

So why do we allow our immigrant students to be segregated? It makes it difficult for them to learn English -- they aren't hearing enough of it in the classroom and don't get the benefit of absorbing it from fluent classmates. It also sets them apart from their peers, making "playground" assimilation difficult as well.

In New York City, for example, barely more than a quarter of bilingual program students in elementary schools become fluent in the language. Only 11 percent of middle school learners do.

We need to teach these kids English as early as possible. Research shows that children have a relatively small cognitive window of opportunity to most easily learn a second language.

Laura Ann Petitto, the John Wentworth Endowed Chair in Psychological & Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, has found that the part of the brain responsible for phonology -- accents, pronunciation, vowels and syllables -- is highly sensitive to the age of exposure. Her research shows it's best to learn a second language before the age of 7.

The immigrant children who spend their formative years in Spanish-only classrooms are losing their best chance to learn English. Children exposed to a second language only in the classroom -- like many immigrant children who never hear English at home or in their communities -- are the hardest hit.

Educators -- and even voters -- in some parts of the country understand that kids can't learn English without intense exposure to it.

Citizens in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have voted in recent years to dismantle ineffective bilingual education programs and replace them with well-researched, structured immersion programs that aim to give children the language skills needed to enter mainstream classrooms in a year or two.

Implementation of these programs varies widely. Many educators have resisted changing programs they've been using for years. But school districts that have fully embraced immersion have seen their English learners' test scores soar.

California used bilingual programs for years without closing the language gap. Things changed after most districts switched to immersion.

Take the example of the Atwater Elementary School District in central California. In 2001, only 12 percent of English learners scored in the top two categories of English proficiency. By 2004, after Atwater embraced immersion, 43 percent did.

The state's largest district has seen similar gains. In 2001, 16 percent of English learners in Los Angeles Unified scored in those top two categories of proficiency. By 2005, almost half did.

Arizona has seen immersion's benefits too, although not all districts have changed their programs yet. A 2002-03 government study found that immersion students outperformed students in bilingual programs by one to four months in grades two to four, by six months in grade five, and by more than a year from grade six on.

Once immigrant students learn English, they often become fully integrated, productive members of American society. Often they even surpass native-born speakers. In New York City, for example, almost 55 percent of ordinary students in the city's Class of 2004 graduated on time. But 64 percent of former English learners did.

Lawmakers can argue all they want about whether English should be the official language of the United States. But if they don't give every American a chance to learn the language, their efforts will be in vain. The best way to bring immigrants into our culture is not to segregate them. It's to teach them English.