Does Bilingual Education Help or Hurt?


Today marks the second full week of a very interesting NEW YORK TIMES feature on immigration. The ambitious project, part of the paper’s “Room for Debate” blog, warehouses a lot of really important data including past articles, cool maps that let you toggle back in time to see where different ethnic groups settled (check 1910) and, rather incredibly, a searchable catalog with “the history of ethnic diversity in every school district in the country.”

The first topic is one that has consistently intrigued me: Should schools ever be bilingual? Or, to put a finer point on it, should children of immigrants who don’t speak English well be provided their own alternate—hopefully parallel—education? The impetus for this was an article by Ginger Thompson that described such a segregation in Virginia:

Freda Conteh had missed long stretches of school in war-torn Sierra Leone. Noemi Caballero, from Mexico, filled notebooks with short stories and poetry in Spanish, but struggled to compose simple sentences in English.

Nuwan Gamage, from Sri Lanka, was distracted by working two jobs to support himself because he found it difficult to live with his mother and her American husband after spending most of his life apart from her. And Edvin Estrada, a Guatemalan, worried about a brother in the Marines, headed off for duty in some undisclosed hot spot.

Few of these students had heard of the Pilgrims, much less the history of Thanksgiving.


As a matter of popular debate, this conversation always seems to revolve around the merits of Spanish and English educations (here in Washington, my teacher friends negotiate this problem frequently; most adjust by learning Spanish). But the Virginia school in the TIMES story houses 25 languages in its program for English learners—though it’s “predominantly” Latino.

So what about other less multicultural (this school’s student body president is Laotian) school districts, or the children of other, non Spanish speaking immigrant groups? If there are not the resources to educate those kids in, say, Polish or in Creole or in Hausa, what then? I imagine they’re put in classrooms with all the other English speakers and made to swim in the sea into which they’re thrown. I wonder who comes out with the better preparation?

That question is not facetious; it does seem to be a real debate. One Guatemalan girl at the school said, “I am thankful to my teachers because the little bit of English I am able to speak, I speak because of them" … But, she added, “I feel they hold me back by isolating me.” If home and suddenly school are dominated by a language that is not America’s, what then?


BONUS: Check out the TIMES' interesting live conversation with education and immigration experts.

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.