Immersion vs. Bilingual Education

In the City Journal, Heather Mac Donald has an interesting article showing how California’s 1998 ban on bilingual education (a referendum initiative that passed despite the opposition of most of the political and education establishment) has improved English Language acquisition by immigrant Hispanic students. Unsurprisingly, young children learn new languages better by immersion. Mac Donald also claims that this result ran counter to the predictions of various experts in education and psychology:

Unless Hispanic children were taught in Spanish, the bilingual advocates moaned, they would be unable to learn English or to succeed in other academic subjects….

The 1960s Chicano rights movement (“Chicano” refers to Mexican-Americans) asserted that the American tradition of assimilation was destroying not just Mexican-American identity but also Mexican-American students’ capacity to learn. Teaching these students in English rather than in Spanish hurt their self-esteem and pride in their culture, Chicano activists alleged: hence the high drop-out rates, poor academic performance, and gang involvement that characterized so many Mexican-American students in the Southwest. Manuel Ramirez III, currently a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that bilingual education was necessary to ensure “the academic survival of Chicano children and the political and economic strength of the Chicano community…”

Novel linguistic theories arose to buttress this political platform. Children could not learn a second language well unless they were already fully literate in their native tongue, the newly minted bilingual-ed proponents argued. To teach English to a five-year-old who spoke Spanish at home, you had to instruct him in Spanish for several more years, until he had mastered Spanish grammar and spelling. “Young children are not language sponges,” asserts McGill University psychology professor Fred Genesee, defying centuries of parental observation.

Such claims are difficult to take seriously. Centuries of immigrant experience show that immersion enables young children to quickly pick up new languages, whether they are literate in their original language or not. When I arrived in the US at the age of six, I didn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t read and write in Russian at all, never mind being “fully literate” in it. Nonetheless, as a result of immersion, I was fluent in English within a year and literate within two – long before I belatedly achieved literacy in Russian at the age of ten. Since we spoke Russian at home, my progress with English was almost entirely the result of immersion in school.

It would be wrong to generalize from personal experience alone. But I have seen numerous other immigrant children with similar stories, both in the Russian community and elsewhere. For example, when I was in college, I was a volunteer tutor for Cambodian refugee school children. Most of the parents were poor, ill-educated, and had limited or no English proficiency. Nonetheless, their kids who had arrived in the US at elementary school ages all spoke fluent English because of immersion (public schools in the area probably lacked the personnel to teach these students in Cambodian, even if they had wanted to). Those who came to the US at high school ages had a much tougher time, but were still making progress. I can understand claims that bilingual education is needed for students who arrive in the US at high school age or later. But for elementary school students, immersion is by far the best way to go. Moreover, as Mac Donald points out, immersion is a standard, highly effective technique used by leading programs that teach students foreign languages (e.g. – Middlebury College’s Language Schools). Even adult students benefit from it, though admittedly not as much or as quickly as children.

I would add that in most immigrant communities, the usual concern about immersion is not that it prevents kids from learning English, but that it leads them to lose competency in their native languages. I’ve often heard immigrant parents lament this, though few want to put their kids in bilingual ed programs to prevent it (because they realize that failure to learn English quickly is likely to hurt their children’s future prospects). Loss of native language competency is a genuine problem; speaking a second language has great value in today’s globalized economy. But this issue should be addressed by means that don’t slow students’ progress in English.