As most readers are aware, Proposition 203, if passed, will outlaw bilingual education in Arizona. In reading recent articles and letters to the editor, I have been intrigued by some of the false assumptions (call them myths) about bilingual education and the potential impact of Proposition 203 on our state.
MYTH #1: Children can learn a second language in one year. This is a half-myth. Yes, many children can learn how to speak English in a year or two. However, current research indicates that it often takes a non-English speaking (NES) child 5 to 10 years to learn how to read and write at grade level in English. Because literacy skills are essential to a child's success in school, special programs have been created to help NES children learn not only how to speak but also how to read and write the English language. These programs include English as a Second Language (ESL) and bilingual education. Proposition 203 would outlaw all bilingual education programs and would limit a child's participation in an ESL program to one year.
MYTH #2: All bilingual programs are created equal. Many proponents of Proposition 203 believe that bilingual education is bad because students enrolled in such programs never learn to speak English. One writer gave as an example a bilingual program in which Puerto Rican students were taught in Spanish for most of the day except for brief periods of exposure to English in their homeroom. This type of bilingual program (called transitional bilingual education) was inherently flawed because it segregated Puerto Rican students from native speakers of English. However, such programs are proverbial dinosaurs in the eyes of people who take bilingual education seriously. A more successful type of bilingual program (called dual language or two way enrichment bilingual education) places native English-speaking children and native speakers of the other language (i.e., Spanish, Navajo, German, Japanese, etc.) in the same classroom. All students are instructed in English for half of the day and in the other language for the other half. Native speakers of English and speakers of the other language interact with one another in meaningful situations (in the classroom, on the playground, in the cafeteria) in both languages throughout the school day. As a result, both groups become proficient speakers, readers, and writers of two languages, in addition to learning their academic subjects. Richard Riley, Secretary of the U. S. Department of Education, has formally endorsed dual language bilingual education programs, labeling them "the wave of the future." To ban all bilingual programs simply because certain models are doing poorly is like outlawing all high school football programs in the state because some are better than others.
MYTH #3: Bilingual education only benefits minority children. Dual language bilingual programs like the one described above provide an opportunity for any child to become proficient in a second language.
MYTH #4: Children are required to be in bilingual programs. According to Arizona law, parents choose whether or not they want their children to participate in a bilingual education program. Proposition 203 would eliminate the right of parental choice in this matter.
MYTH #5: Bilingualism is a disease. Unfortunately, some people view bilingualism as something to be cured rather than as something to be desired. However, one of the best ways to prepare our children for a global economy is to teach them in two languages at an early age. Many other countries recognize this, as well as the social, intellectual, and financial advantages of being bilingual, and invest in second language education for their children. Granted, bilingual education may not be for everyone, but Proposition 203 would deny the opportunity to anymore.