The Debate Over Bilingual Education and Immersion Programs
In recent years, the debate over whether bilingual education or immersion programs (such as English for Speakers of Other Languages) better serve the needs of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students in the United States has been heating up. The increasing need for such services insights passionate supporters and opposition to rise up against one another in the fight over which is better. Advocates of bilingual education stress the value in helping students retain and even enhance proficiency in their native language, while at the same time gaining proficiency in the English language. Critics of bilingual education, however, contend that such programs only “keep students in a cycle of native language dependency that ultimately inhibits significant progress in English language acquisition” (Bilingual Education, p.1). They prefer an immersion (ESOL) approach, that is, where classes are taught completely and only in English. They contend that students learn English faster and more effectively when they are completely immersed in the language.
The debate has been especially strong in states where Latino populations are high. In fact, changes in education programs have already occurred in such states as California and Arizona. The sunshine state’s infamous Proposition 227 (also know as the English for the Children initiative), Arizona’s Proposition 203, and a number of other state’s English for the Children campaigns are evidence that many people are dissatisfied with bilingual education and are seeking – and getting - changes. Regardless, the general public remains divided on the issue. Teachers, administrators, students, parents, politicians, and researchers are just some of the groups of people involved in the debate. Clearly, this is not a quiet conflict.
A Little History Lesson
Bilingual education is not new. Contrary to popular belief, bilingual education programs were not products of the 1960s. In fact, they aren’t even products of the twentieth century. The first state to actually pass a bilingual education law was Ohio, in 1839 (History of Bilingual Education, 1998). The law was for German-English bilingual education, and was passed as a result of a strong parental initiative. By the end of the nineteenth century, about a dozen states had passed similar laws, and in many other states such instruction was offered, although it had not been sanctioned by the state. During the World War One era, however, as the loyalty of non-English speaking Americans came increasingly under suspicion, many states decided to enact English-only instruction, in an attempt to Americanize non-English speakers. As a result, during the 1920s the bilingual education program had been almost completely dismantled.
In response to the apparent failure of English-only instruction, the United States government passed the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, providing federal funds to...