Bilingual education in itself could refer to different programs that have different focus areas but in general teach students in two languages. Most programs are aimed at those students whose proficiency in English is limited.
Bilingual education programs allows these kids to learn academic subjects in their native language while learning English as a second language. The debate is usually about this program of education which is known as Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE).
Other such programs aim at increasing fluency in two languages, therefore, teaching English language students, a second language, and teaching English to native speakers of languages like Spanish. Variations and combinations of these two types of programs are also used very widely.
History of this form of education can be traced to 1968 with the passing of the Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which funded schools to help those students learn English for whom it wasn't their first language.
The program catered mostly to the large Hispanic population settled in the United States. The debate has seen detractors and supporters argue about it for several years now. Let us take a look at the bilingual education pros and cons as put forward by the two groups.
Pros of Bilingual Education
Effectiveness in learning patterns due to use of the native language is one of the biggest arguments put forward in the favor of bilingual education programs. The use of a language that they are already familiar with ensures that they do not lag behind English language speaking students.
Also in psychological terms, the fact that learning in their native language allows students to keep up boosts their confidence when it comes to the process of learning English. One of the advantages of bilingual education that is often quoted by supporters of the program has been the emphasis on quality.
Programs of bilingual education start off in a manner that the child receives ninety percent of the instruction in their native language and ten percent in English and with each grade there is a gradual shift in percentage, slowly increasing fluency in English.
In an argument, another oft quoted advantage is the fact that bilingual learning allows students to explore a career in translation and interpretation. With the global village phenomenon that is being experienced all over the world, having people who can communicate in two languages gives the person many opportunities.
Students who have been a part of bilingual education programs are often seen to be more flexible in their thinking processes. Other benefits of being bilingual include being able to access more resources and exposure to customs and traditions previously unknown.
Research has also shown, and this is something that comes up often, that children who are bilingual often are more creative and think out-of-the-box because of the freedom of expression they experience due to knowing two languages.
Cons of Bilingual Education
So what are the criticisms faced by proponents of bilingual education programs? Most detractors maintain that in order to teach children English, it is important to allow the mode of instruction to be English instead of making them learn subjects in their native language.
The educational approach that is followed in Canada is often quoted as an example where native speakers of English are taught subjects only in French with English introduced as a subject later. This method has been observed to be quite successful with students being fluent in both, French and English, and doing well in academics overall.
One of the disadvantages of bilingual education according to critics is the time period that it takes for native language speakers to move to classes where the mode in instruction is English. While this period of transition should generally be about 3 - 4 years, in reality it is known to take about seven years.
Another fault pointed out often is the lack of educators who can actually be effective in a bilingual education program. Teachers are not trained well enough to teach in both languages resulting in students being at a loss. There is a high dropout rate in bilingual education classes where students are confined to native language only classrooms.
In order to be effective in schools, bilingual education programs need to have well trained teachers, a low ratio of teachers to students, good facilities in schools, support from school boards and administration, etc. Without these, the bilingual education controversy may rage on for a long time to come.
These programs can be both advantageous and disadvantageous as immigrants do not often view integration as wholly suitable for the community. This is one of the main reasons for the debate. In order for the program to be more effective, it is important that better facilities are provided to schools and that there be a more streamlined process put in place.