Debunking myths on immigrant education
Skirmishes over immigration often take place in the schoolyard. Those opposed to immigration claim that bilingual school programs impair a child’s academic success and that school children who retain their foreign language are threatening the future of English in America. Rosemary Salomone begs to differ. In her book “True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children,” published last month by Harvard University Press, Salomone takes a hard look at the research and debunks a range of myths on immigrant schooling. Salomone is Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St. John's University School of Law.
By Rosemary Salomone
Washington is finally returning to the No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial federal funding law adopted in 2001 with bipartisan congressional support. The program’s mandates on student testing and school accountability have faced a range of criticism. For the nation’s more than 5 million immigrant children who lack proficiency in English, the mandates are particularly worrisome because they promote English-only instruction at the expense of bilingual skills. This approach, however, is based on myths about bilingualism and dual language instruction and suffers from an absence of solid research.
One of the oldest -- and now widely discredited -- arguments holds that bilingualism is potentially harmful to cognition and learning. But recent findings suggest that, in fact, bilingualism enhances mental flexibility, creative thinking, and the capacity to read social cues. It may even protect individuals from cognitive decline as they age.
Psychologists have found that children raised bilingually are better able to screen out irrelevant information, which may offer an early advantage in problem solving. Researchers also have found a social component related to what psychologists call “emotional” intelligence. Speakers of more than one language appear to be particularly adept at reading the abstract mental states of others and at predicting their behavior, a highly useful trait in a culturally diverse and transnational world.
Studies indicate that children who initially learn to read in the language used at home also develop conceptual and linguistic skills that serve them well for acquiring a second language and succeeding in the academic world. Though it seems intuitively reasonable that the more time spent on learning English, the better it is learned, findings increasingly suggest that students taught in both their native language and English outperform similar children in all-English classes on tests of English reading proficiency. This is the case from elementary through high school.
Findings especially support dual language immersion programs (half instructional time in English, half in the native language) as most effective for developing proficiency in two languages across the curriculum; dual language immersion programs also have been found to produce the fewest number of students dropping out of school.
Facts also defy rhetoric on the question of language retention. Bilingualism across generations, common among Spanish speakers, is often misconstrued, especially within anti-immigrant circles, as a sign of resistance to learning English. Unlike immigrants of the past, and other non-English speakers today, many within the third generation still are comfortable speaking both English and Spanish. Yet in a typical immigrant pattern, the second generation overwhelmingly is fluent in English by adolescence and speaks primarily English at home as adults.
Sociologists and psychologists point out that immigrant children actually gain emotionally and academically from the ability to communicate in their native language with family, especially grandparents, and community members and from the close-knit ties that fluency engenders. Many young adults affirm the importance of language in maintaining such relationships.
These findings undeniably invite additional controlled studies. Nonetheless, they are a necessary starting point for lawmakers reconsidering the No Child Left Behind policy. The new law should discard the absolutist and dubiously grounded arguments of those who ignore, or simply do not understand, the subtleties of language learning and academic achievement, and the rich linguistic and cultural resources that immigrant children bring to the school setting.
Steven E. Levingston
April 6, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: no child left behind policy debate; educating immigrant children; bilingualism among immigrants
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