Plural benefits of bilingual education

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 1 14:24:39 UTC 2006

Plural benefits of bilingual education

By Domenico Maceri
San Gabriel Valley Tribune

`WE know two languages. We can have friends that speak Spanish or
English," stated 8-year-old Chloe McEnfarffer, a student in a dual
language school in Oregon. Chloe is smart far beyond her age. Although the
United States has an ambiguous relationship with bilingualism, the value
of knowing two or more languages is gaining strength. It's happening in
the increase of dual language schools, which teach all subjects in two
languages, typically Spanish and English, but sometimes Chinese and
English, Japanese and English, and other combinations.

Although the number of dual language programs is a small fraction of
American schools, every time a new program is set up there are long lines
of parents who want to enroll their kids. The advantages of a bilingual
education are becoming apparent to more and more Americans. As the world
continues to get smaller, the realization that two languages can do more
for the future becomes increasingly a reality. Research supports the
advantages to bilingualism. Bilingual children develop a mental agility
which monolingual ones lack. That's what Laura-Ann Petitto, a researcher
at Dartmouth University, revealed in a study published a few years ago.
Bilingual children can perform certain cognitive tasks more accurately
than monolinguals. They are also more creative, better at problem-solving,
and also score higher on literacy tests.

This intellectual ability of bilingual children transfers to the study of
a third or fourth language. Thus someone who knows English and Spanish can
learn Arabic much more easily than someone who only knows English. Just
like learning a second musical instrument is easier than the first, the
same applies to languages. But this intellectual ability also transfers to
other areas of education.  Studies conducted at George Mason University
revealed that students educated in two languages did better in
standardized tests than those educated in only one language. Studies have
shown that bilingualism may indeed make people "smarter" and in some cases
may even help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

Bilingualism is certainly valued in business. The use of Spanish and other
languages is visible in all areas of American culture. Major American
companies use different languages in addition to English to attract
customers. AT&T and other phone companies ask you to choose between
English ad Spanish when you use a phone card. ATM machines ask the same
question. Commercials by American and international companies are
ubiquitous in Spanish language radio and television. Smart companies use
many ways to communicate with their customers and inform them about
services and products. As the Japanese are fond of saying, the language of
business is the customer's language.

Languages have also become extremely valuable in government. Many U.S.
agencies, unfortunately, have serious shortages of linguists and that, of
course, severely affects our ability to fight terrorism. In spite of the
obvious advantages of bilingualism, many Americans see dangers in it. Some
fear a Balkanization of the country upon hearing the word bilingual.
Images of Canada come to mind right away. Also, fear that bilingualism may
not lead to integration of new arrivals pushes people to lobby for
English-only laws.

Twenty-seven states have passed laws declaring English the official
language, but nothing has changed with regard to reducing immigration nor
the number of languages people speak. Fundamentally, Americans suffer from
monolingualism. You see it in education. While foreign languages are a
basic subject in many industrialized nations, in American schools
languages continue being the exception rather than rule. Indeed, it is
possible to graduate from an American college without being able to
communicate in a language other than English.

America is a land of immigrants who came from every corner of the globe.
Historically, the focus has been on learning English as quickly as
possible in order to integrate. Although integration is vital,
bilingualism and even multilingualism needs to be viewed as an asset that
will provide benefits at the practical but at the human level as well.

dmaceri at

Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in
Santa Maria.

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