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Conditions Are Perfect For Bilingual Education - So Why Is It In Decline?

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Developments in social science, global trends and demographics all reinforce the significant benefits of bilingual education. Despite that, American schools show a steady decline in language programs. How can this be?

First, let's look at the conditions for bilingualism. There have always been benefits to being able to speak more than one language; recent studies show the depth of those benefits: "Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age."

The global economy benefits from a labor force that can transact business in more than one language, which would seem to reinforce the need for bilingual education. While English is the lingua franca of today's global economy, it is hard to argue that knowing another language is a disadvantage in today's (or tomorrow's) market. Perhaps more than ever before in American history, knowledge of language and culture is a pillar of economic achievement.

The recent American immigration increase, mostly Hispanic, has created large bilingual population. Certain school districts in major cities like Los Angeles or Houston would suggest that bilingual education is a natural evolution of our school systems.

So, with all these conditions in place, bilingual education should be pervading our public schools. It isn't. In fact, it is going in reverse: "Thousands of public schools stopped teaching foreign languages in the last decade, according to a government-financed survey--dismal news for a nation that needs more linguists to conduct its global business and diplomacy."

There are two major factors at work that help explain why - language as a badge of national identity and cost.

Language as national identity is a precept that extends to fundamental notions of nationalism. Often, language is seen as a badge of national identity-imagine a Frenchman who doesn't speak French. While the United States does not have an "official" language, English is seen as a badge of American identity. This notion has shown up many times over the course of our history, as seen with other waves of immigration that motivated the creation of Polish, German, Dutch, Czech and Norwegian language schools in the mid 1800s. This trend was fundamentally challenged during WWI (which related to the rise of nationalism), and a new psychology of English as a proxy for "American" arose. Unfortunately, language became a binary choice - English (which equaled American) or "other." This notion continues today, and is exacerbated by the latest rise in Hispanic immigration.

The second issue is cost. With great debates occurring in American public schools on the role of teacher unions, national education standards and the need to emphasize science and math, language has fallen by the wayside.

"In January 2002, Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the Bilingual Education Act, was allowed to expire. It was eliminated as part of a larger 'school reform' effort of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (Public Law 107-110) that abolishes most efforts at bilingual education and substitutes increased funding for English language acquisition efforts. The 34-year federal effort to investigate and experiment with bilingual education at the federal level has ended. Anti-bilingual education forces have won," according to StateUniversity.com

Is there a middle ground? Title VII originated with the intent of teaching non-native speakers in their language of origin, not as a notion of teaching all Americans another language. Can the United States adopt an approach that recognizes the English imperative (which is and always has been the language adopted by our citizenry to advance in society) and recognizes the increasingly obvious benefits of knowing another language? In the short term, the prospects don't look good, and bilingual education may be yet another societal victim to unresolved immigration issues. Implications to our economic competitiveness, our ability to experience the world more holistically, and even to age with less threat of Alzheimer's is at risk.

Reconciling American identity with a large ethnic influx has always been difficult. Perhaps as cultural norms shift, largely driven by the rise of bicultural and bilingual Hispanics, the issue of expanding the brain with two languages (or more!) can shift as well, to our benefit. Espero que si.