AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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At the beginning of the twenty-first century there were some three million children in the United States who were classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP). For much of the twentieth century these students would have been placed in so-called "immersion programs," in which they would be taught solely in English until they understood it as well or better than their native tongue. Beginning in the 1960s there was a gradual shift toward bilingual education, in which students can master English while retaining their native-language skills.

Types of Bilingual Education

There is a difference between bilingual programs and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, although bilingual programs include an ESL component. Bilingual programs are designed to introduce students to English gradually by working with them in both English and their native tongue. The students are able to master English without losing proficiency in the native language. In bilingual or dual language immersion, the class typically includes English speaking students and LEP students who share the same native language. Instruction is given in both English and the native language. In developmental or late-exit programs, all students share the same language; instruction begins in that language but gradually shifts to English as the students become more proficient.

Transitional or early-exit programs are similar to developmental programs, except that the goal is mastery of English rather than bilingualism. Students who become proficient in English are transferred to English-only classes.

Bilingualism is not generally a goal in ESL programs. In sheltered English or structured immersion programs, LEP students are taught in English (supplemented by gestures and other visual aids). The goal is acquisition of English. Pull-out ESL programs include English-only instruction, but LEP participants are "pulled out" of the classroom for part of the day for lessons in their native tongue.

Conflicting Philosophies

Bilingual education in the United States is a complex cultural issue because of two conflicting philosophies. On the one hand is the idea that the United States welcomes people from all societies, from all walks of life. Immigrants have long seen the States as the "Land of Opportunity," in which individuals can rise to the top through hard work and determination. They can build new identities for themselves,

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but they can also hold on to their past culture without fear of reprisal. At the same time, the United States is also the great "melting pot" in which immigrants are expected to assimilate if they wish to avail themselves of the many opportunities for freedom and success. Everyone who comes to the States, so they are told, should want to become American.

Thus there are people who believe strongly that erasing an immigrant's native tongue is erasing a key cultural element. People are entitled to speak and use their native languages as they please; anything less goes against the freedom for which the United States stands. Besides, having proficiency or fluency in more than one language is a decided advantage in a world that has become more interdependent.

There are other people who believe, equally strongly, that everyone who lives and works in the United States should speak, read, and write in English. Those who oppose bilingual programs for LEP students believe that allowing children to learn in their native tongue puts them at a disadvantage in a country in which English is the common language. A student whose instruction is in another language, they say, may never master English. This closes doors to opportunities including higher education and choice of career.

There is no uniform opinion even among immigrant parents of LEP children. Some parents want their children to be taught in their native tongue as a means of preserving their culture. Others, wishing their children to have the same opportunities as native speakers of English, want their children to be taught in English from the outset.

The one point on which everyone seems to agree is that LEP children deserve the best educational opportunities available, and any language program must be structured enough to give them a good foundation, while it remains flexible enough to meet their varied needs.

Historical Perspective

Although we tend to think of bilingualism in the United States as a modern issue...

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