Bilingual education

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I spent my spring break two years ago surrounded by foreign girls cooing that I was cute and marveling that I spoke their language. Oh, and did I mention they were from six to eight years old? I was brought on as an under-the-table teacher aide for a week in my former elementary school’s kindergarten class because the prospects of finding another person in my neighborhood who a) spoke Hebrew and English and b) was willing to be seen within 500 feet of a kindergarten classroom was nil.

My job description was really, really simple (since I wasn’t really proficient at either language at the time: Make sure they know where the potty is and don’t let them get hit by a car at recess. So what is the purpose of this rambling anecdote? It’s a touching example of why English immersion is preferable to bilingual education. Now, there is the question of “How can you call it English immersion if you’re talking to the students in their native language? “, which is a good point.

English immersion, as an education policy, means you give students the absolute minimum of support in their main language necessary for safety and then plop them in a regular classroom. Bilingual education typically means you keep them in a separate classroom for an indeterminate period of time until their English skills have caught up to par, then you transfer them to all English classes. English immersion has millions of instances of empirical solvency, spread over a couple of hundred years.

The only way you can make your bet any surer is to work for the casino. English immersion takes advantage of a property of the human brain which has been repeatedly documented by the best scientific studies available: it’s a virtual sponge of linguistic goodness when you’re young and becomes remarkably less so with age. Every child manages to become proficient in their spoken language within just a few years when they’re little, and the rest of their education builds on that foundation.

The faster you start kids on foreign languages, the sooner they’ll be fluent in them – I only wish I had been learning these infernal Arabic characters when I was 9 rather than 18, then my handwriting would not look like that of a spastic chicken who fell into the sake still. Any delay in exposing children to English squanders valuable time when their brains are wiring themselves to process languages, and while you can teach people to do foreign languages (even do them fluently) without that youth magic, why on earth would you pick hard rather than easy if you had the option?

English immersion promotes assimilation, bilingual education promotes barrios: Let me tell you the story of a Korean friend of mine. Call him Bob (I’d pick a generic Korean name, except I know sufficiently many Koreans that there is no generic Korean name which I can’t find among my extended group of friends). Bob was in America for six years before middle school, and as a result spoke English pretty well. He had middle school in Korea, and came back to the US for high school.

Bob was put into the bilingual education program at my high school. Bob spent two and a half years in that program, spending every class period with a bunch of other students who spoke only Korean and little to no English, unlike Bob, who speaks it at least as well as the President. Finally, the school decided to grant Bob’s request to get the heck out of Dodge, and because Bob is a pretty smart cookie he ended up in a good portion of my classes, where we became fast friends.

I asked Bob one day, if he had been at school for so long, how come I had never met him, because clearly we would have been friends earlier had we met before, and Bob told me how he was sequestered off into a little room in the middle of nowhere our of a misguided concern on the part of the administration that he would flounder if exposed to white people. Bob lost almost three years of perfectly good schooling as a result of this, and more to the point lost three years of school.

He was far behind on making friends, had less than a year of essay writing experience when it came time to do college applications, and his English declined from Bush to shrub for want of use. Bob, however, was lucky – he got out. I walked in my graduation with 8 Korean students I had never talked to and scarcely seen, who got stuck in the ESL barrio and never managed to get out. My school had all the resources in the world and a 98% college acceptance rate – care to guess which students we failed?

Bilingual education imposes perverse incentives on teachers and education system: Now, I’ve got all the love in the world for bilingual education teachers. That being said, the fundamental thing I learned in Econ 101 was that incentives matter, and the fundamental thing I learned in Poli Sci 101 was that good people do bad things when confronted with poorly designed incentive structures. What are the incentives involved with bilingual education imposed at the systemic level? From the teacher’s unions’ point of view, anything that gets them more dues paying members is good, and anything that gets members fired is bad.

Effective bilingual education programs (i. e. those that get the kids mainstreamed, fast) get bilingual education teachers fired. Sad, but true. My school had three educators assigned to do ESL for Korean students – had the average kid taken less than 3 years of the program to mainstream, we could have done that with one, and two of them would be looking for alternate employment. This holds the children hostage to bureaucratic turf wars, where the decision that best helps the student hurts the decision maker, and so they often pick suboptimal decisions.

Bilingual education in California prior to its abolition had similar problems – parents complained that they wanted their students in regular classrooms, and the schools overruled them, playing the trump card of “what’s best for the children” and frequently hinting, not so subtly, that one should trust an education degree over a migrant laborer any day. One of these migrant laborers said something that sticks with me: “They teach my son Spanish so he will be a busboy or waiter. I teach him English so he will be a doctor or lawyer”.

Additional incentives arrayed against the children’s interests are federal grant money that accrues based on the number of students you have in bilingual education classrooms, and special interest groups who keep bilingual education viable to guarantee their constituents a certain number of jobs (which interest group depends on where you are – sometimes its the national teachers unions, sometimes is local or specialized bilingual education unions, sometimes its umbrella organizations for the particular ethnicity involved).

English immersion, however, has the incentives aligned in the right direction – the faster you get Hideo or Sofina fluent in English, the faster their incredible work ethic starts helping your test scores.

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