Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bilingualism is Good for You // Time to Rethink Prop 227

A recent New York Times article, The Benefits of Bilingualism, presents that studies have shown cognitive benefits to being bilingual:
Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle. 
The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.
This signifies that it's time to take a long, hard look at our monolingual education system and how it came to be, as well as consider its impact on the quality of our public education system.

  • (Nationwide) In 1968, the Bilingual Education Act was enacted "to provide school districts with federal funds, in the form of competitive grants, to establish innovative educational programs for students with limited English speaking ability." 
  • (California) In 1998, Proposition 227 banned bilingual education in California public schools. I vaguely remember being in elementary school and knowing of classes that were taught in both Spanish and English, and thinking they were pretty cool. This was a few years before the ban.
  • (Nationwide) In 2001, No Child Left Behind based funding for public schools on standardized testing which does not take into account varying English language skills. 
A quick Google search for "los angeles bilingual education" lead me to two pieces from the LA Times in 1986 and 2010. Each of the articles features some impassioned arguments from both sides. The 1986 article features a woman lamenting about "how the bilingual program discriminates against her [another woman's] son who speaks English as his native language." It's strange that those who belong to the dominant culture can equate efforts for inclusivity with discrimination. Her comment brings to mind a Caucasian neighbor of mine from my old building who railed loudly at the fact that automated telephone answering services asked him to choose between English or Spanish. Is it really such an inconvenience to press 1 or say English?
The issue of multi-lingual education is one that the United States is far behind on, it seems. European and Asian education often involves two or three or even more languages. With this study showing that the use of multiple languages increases problem solving ability, it seems to be yet another thing to add to the many reasons that this country is constantly fretting about falling behind other nations in education (other than being grossly under-funded and under-valued).

Since the discourse tends to center around Spanish speakers, I was surprised to learn that a Supreme Court Case fought by Chinese American students in 1974, Lau vs. Nichols, was an important decision in favor of bilingual education: Among other things, Lau reflects the now-widely accepted view that a person's language is so closely intertwined with their national origin (the country someone or their ancestors came from) that language-based discrimination is effectively a proxy for national origin discrimination.
This is where we have to think about how our monolingual education system is a form of institutionalized racism--and that it's not only detrimental to non-White, non-English-speakers. How much more rich a society could we be if our public schools' curricula reflected the cultural diversity of the area?
But such things take time and effort and creativity; things which are the anti-thesis of our standardized-testing based system which is, at its root, incredibly dehumanizing in its approach. As Mario Savio said, "We’re human beings!" It's time to rethink Prop 227.
(Interestingly, charter schools are allowed to have "dual-language immersion" programs-- and they're popular. So, public dollars toward bilingual education in public schools is not okay, but public dollars toward "dual language immersion" in privatized schools is? Hmm.)

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