Not having had much time recently to post, I wanted to mention an interesting synchronicity of events today on the subject of bilingualism: one an article questioning Barack Obama’s support of bilingualism (see my earlier post) as an effective means of encouraging educational achievement, and the other closer to hand, the launch of a new organisation in Scotland – Bilingualism Matters.

This article by Lance T. Izumi appeared in the New York Times “Campaign Stops” column, under the title: The Bilingual Debate – English Immersion.

Making effective appeals to Hispanic voters is a tricky business. Barack Obama’s education proposals are a case in point.

Mr. Obama’s campaign notes that, “African-American and Latino students are significantly less likely to graduate than white students,” which is true. To combat such achievement gaps, Mr. Obama’s education plan specifically advocates, among other things, “transitional bilingual education” for English-learners. Yet, the question for Mr. Obama is whether his commitment to bilingual education, which emphasizes classroom instruction in languages other than English, overrides his interest in closing achievement gaps.

Take, for example, Sixth Street Prep, a charter elementary school in eastern Los Angeles County. The school’s students are overwhelmingly Hispanic and low income. More than a third of the students, many of whom are recent arrivals, are learning English. Yet, among fourth graders, an astounding 100 percent of the students tested at the proficient level on the 2008 state math exam. A nearly equally amazing 93 percent of fourth graders tested proficient on the state English-language-arts exam. This incredible success was achieved using a different ingredient than the one favored by Mr. Obama.

Sixth Street emphasizes review and practice, constant assessment of skills and a no-excuses attitude. Furthermore, and here’s where Mr. Obama should take note, according to Linda Mikels, Sixth Street’s principal, the school’s instructional approach for English learners is “full immersion.” English immersion emphasizes the near-exclusive use of English in content instruction. Ms. Mikels, who opposes bilingual education, told me, “we’ve had tremendous success with having a student who is brand new from Mexico and you would walk into a classroom 12 months later and you wouldn’t be able to pick out which one he was.” “It’s working,” she observed, “it’s working for us.”

Would Mr. Obama hold up a school like Sixth Street Prep as one model for replication by other schools with large Hispanic and English-learner populations? The school’s achievement results should make the answer to that question a no-brainer, but the education politics within his own party (the National Education Associations has been a long-time supporter of bilingual education) and his own consistent support for bilingual education obscure predicting Mr. Obama’s response.

While he agrees that immigrants should learn English, Mr. Obama recently trivialized the issue when he said that people should stop worrying about “English-only” legislation. Instead, he said, “you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.”

If Mr. Obama truly wishes to close achievement gaps, he should carefully consider education models that work rather than scorn or trivialize them.

Of course, single-language immersion in a school environment is not new – the Romans advocated the use of Latin as the language of integration and the British used English in the 19th century.  So, while I have complete respect for the achievements of staff and pupils at Sixth Street Prep, I do however hope the pupils are still speaking Spanish at home, with their families and peer groups.

This is why the second of these two events offered an interesting contrast.  Bilingualism Matters is a new organisation – based in Edinburgh but with a broader remit across the whole of Scotland – that aims to raise awareness of the advantages of bilingualism and the importance of encouraging parents living in Scotland whose native language is not English to raise their children bilingually.  In this respect, the focus is primarily on the family, and to a lesser extent on schools and carers; indeed the organisation specifically avoids offering pedagogical advice.

Together with some of the better known advantages of bilingualism, like an aptitude for learning additional languages, it was interesting to discover that bilingual children have a greater awareness of others and an ability to switch cognitive functions – not only linguistically but also using other skills (shape/colour recognition, reacting to different instructions etc).

All this seems well worth encouraging – particularly because bilingualism is not a long-lived phenomenon.  Second- and above all third-generation families that continue to live in a country will soon lose the ability to hand on this valuable gift.  But, unless our world suddenly becomes less mobile and globalised (and the outlook is not exactly rosy in this present economic climate ), people will continue to move abroad and children exposed constantly and meaningfully to two (or more) languages will be presented with the chance of a lifetime: becoming bilingual.

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