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November 10, 2013

CEPEDA: The downside of bilingualism

Activist and educator Matthew Lynch recently asked if language barriers are the “new segregation.” He challenged readers of an Education Week blog to consider if it is “fair to separate our student populations based on their native language.”

He continued, “Just as the ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education found that ‘separate is ... unequal’ when it comes to skin color — is the same true of language preferences?”

Yes, separate classrooms for speakers of native languages other than English are egregiously unequal and not fair.

Lynch was referring to a contentious case in Elgin, Ill., where the school district — 40 percent Hispanic — runs a gifted program in which only 2 percent of the students are Hispanic. The district has a separate gifted program for Hispanic students learning English as a second language.

This is in line with the mindset of countless educators who believe, incorrectly, that children who are not native English-speakers need the special accommodation of being immersed in their native language in order to learn.

Vanderbilt University professor Donna Ford said, “Even unintentional discrimination closes the door for gifted minority students. Even if you don’t mean to discriminate, that is not an excuse to keep doing business as usual.”

But herding students learning English into classes that are taught exclusively in their native language is business as usual in many school districts. In fact, many defenders of Hispanic culture believe it is the only way to educate kids who are not native English-speakers.

Separate classes, separate teachers and sometimes separate curriculums — often lower-level than those of the native English-speakers in a given grade — are common in typical “bilingual” programs.

I was a bilingual teacher in Illinois, a state that requires most Spanish-speakers to get at least partial instruction in their native language. But Spanish-only tended to be the norm and I often angered my peers for teaching in two languages instead of just in Spanish.

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