Wednesday, March 04, 2009

"they are not becoming fluent in English..."

I have long been a supporter of foreign language immersion programs for children. Time and again immersion in a second language, especially at a young age, has shown itself to be the quickest and most effective method for learning a second language. Many students have benefited from learning a second language in this manner and have become successfully bilingual. However, it is important to remember that there are two different types of language students in the US; native English speakers who are learning a second language and native speakers of another language who are learning English. The reasons for language learning in these two groups are different as are the needs of each group. The first group learns a second language for the added benefit bilingualism will bring, the latter for the pure necessity of it. The native English-speakers will learn a second language and will not lose their native language because it is the dominant language of the country in which they live. They are surrounded by English.

Native speakers of another language can easily lose their native language if not continuously exposed to it. Young immigrants, who attend English-only schools frequently fail to achieve an advanced level in their language, have limited vocabulary and rarely learn to write in that language. What a tremendous loss for children who could easily have become bilingual. But on the flip side, those same students take much longer to learn English when placed in transitional classrooms in which the majority of their day is taught in their native language and in which they are grouped with other students who share the same native language. This is the very issue that has caused many districts to rethink their bilingual programs and has spread so much concern about the cost versus the benefit of such programs.

District officials in Commerce City, Colorado have become concerned by this as reported by The Denver Post yesterday:

Fifty-four percent of Adams 14's 6,500 students are English-language learners, and recent studies have shown they are not becoming fluent in English as they move through the district.

"The majority of students who have been in the district for six years still remain limited in proficiency of English," said Superintendent Sue Chandler in a letter to parents. "There is little indication of progress in literacy and language."

Chandler said the district is ditching its bilingual policy that was "overly proscriptive" and moving to a flexible policy that will "allow the district to develop a program to best meet the needs of all students who are acquiring English."

"The fact is we haven't changed it yet," Albright said about the new language policy. "But we know we need to do something better."

It is doubtful that Commerce City is alone in confronting this issue. There is obviously a problem about many of these bilingual programs that needs to be addressed. It is unfair for these students to lag so far behind their peers in English. But what system would work better? I can only imagine that the "correct solution" would vary widely by community. But whatever solution is created needs to take into account both English language acquisition and native language maintenance. Only in this way are we truly educating these students to their full capacity.

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