I'm not an expert on bilingual education, but I often wonder how much English gets used in bilingual classes. I've started thinking about this a lot since, the other day, a mother accompanied her daughter to my classroom door. Mom was upset. Her daughter had been placed in a bilingual program, so why the hell was she in an English class. My patient student translator, who I dragged out of his seat especially for this occasion, calmly explained that everyone had to learn English.
Mom was not happy, but as we did not present her with an alternative, she left
My kids are often shocked I won't let them speak their first languages in ESL classes. They don't see it as a thing, and as they spend much of their day speaking their L1, or first language, they’re shocked by my unreasonable demands. But the only way I know to teach English is in English. I remember well high school teachers teaching me Spanish almost exclusively in English. I learned very little until I spent a few summers in Mexico, where English was simply not an option.
I enforce a policy that we will respect one another, and I see using a language we all share as a facet of that. I can speak Spanish, but I don't do it in my classes. Personally, I think that would be favoring the Spanish speakers, and more or less actively discriminating against everyone else. Unless I'm prepared to speak every language in the room, which I simply cannot do, I think I need to stick to English.
I know some other teachers have different approaches. I do understand the need to help out kids in their own languages sometimes. I will drag Spanish speakers in the hall and speak to them. I will take a more advanced student out with a rank beginner, as I did with the girl and her mom, and have the kid help me. But even that is a little unfair. For example, I have one girl who speaks Arabic. She came several weeks ago and I haven't got another student to translate for her.
For her, I'm lucky that someone else in the building shares her language and will help her out. But even that's not a given.
I studied dual language programs in college, and enrolled my daughter in one when she was in first grade. It was great for her. I had spoken English to her and my wife Spanish, but we failed to make her respond to my wife in Spanish. My daughter went to Colombia one summer with my wife and was shocked when she answered people in English and they didn’t understand. It worked with Mom. For goodness sake, Elmo and the Teletubbies spoke English. What kind of place was this South America anyway? After her first grade class, she started speaking Spanish again. I was driving with her mom and her abuela and I almost crashed the car when I heard her do so.
I also remember my niece from Colombia, at the age of 6, was in a first grade class that used no English whatsoever. I watched her struggle to spit out English in the playground and took her and her mom to the school, where I had to fight a secretary to get an audience with the principal. We got her placed in an ESL program and she made rapid progress with kids from all over the world rather than only those who spoke Spanish.
I like the idea of bilingual education if it's done right. And actually the notion of half L1 dominant and half L2 dominant kids supporting one another, like the program my daughter attended in elementary school, appeals to me a lot. It seems to me a win-win, and I have no idea why it isn't utilized more often. Our newcomers have a lot to offer us, and that certainly includes their languages.
If you've got a school full of Spanish or Chinese kids who need to learn English, why not group them with English kids who want to learn Spanish or Chinese?
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