[lg policy] Hartford: English-Only Teaching Ignores Bilingual Benefits

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 24 14:35:58 UTC 2012

English-Only Teaching Ignores Bilingual Benefits

By ANDREA DYRNESS The Hartford Courant

5:43 p.m. EDT, March 23, 2012

As a spate of new research shows, it's good to speak a second
language. Bilingualism, it turns out, is a lifetime benefit, and not
just for traveling to other countries. The ability to use two or more
languages promotes cognitive flexibility, improves attention processes
and has been shown to delay the onset of Alzheimer's and dementia in
old age.

The very bad news is that as this research comes to light, educational
policy in U.S. schools is moving away from bilingualism. Since the
late 1990s, a movement to restrict the use of languages other than
English in instruction has gained ascendance, resulting in bans on
bilingual instruction in three states so far — California, Arizona and
Massachusetts — and the curtailing of bilingual education in many
other states.

In Hartford, 43.4 percent of students come from homes where English is
not the primary language and 18 percent of the district's students are
classified as English-language learners. Nevertheless, recent years
have seen the elimination of dual-language programs and a steady
erosion of opportunities for students to speak, learn or develop
Spanish or other languages.

In part this is because federal policy under No Child Left Behind
dictates a heavy emphasis on testing in reading and math (and the
Connecticut Mastery Test is available only in English). Also, under
state law, Connecticut schools are prohibited from offering
native-language instruction beyond 30 months or three academic years.
(This is a cap, not a minimum, and many schools choose to provide

But it is not only state and federal policy that is to blame. The move
toward English-only in schools in Hartford and across the country has
its roots in poisonous views of Spanish speakers and other racially
marginalized immigrants as linguistically and culturally deficient,
and in the irrational fear that the presence of linguistically diverse
populations within our borders threatens the primacy of English.

Such views of Spanish speakers have never been clearer to me than in
the seven years that I have been living and working in Hartford. As a
professor of education working with public schools, I have been
alarmed by the oppressive emphasis on English-only and the relentless
disparagement of Spanish, Hartford's largest language group after
English. In supervising more than 40 students a year who work as
interns in Hartford classrooms and after-school programs, I regularly
hear that Latino students are being chastised for speaking Spanish in

When my husband and I went to enroll our 3-year-old daughter in a
Hartford magnet school, we became targets of the suspicion reserved
for Spanish-speakers. When asked about our home language, we reported
that we speak both Spanish and English at home and are raising our
daughter bilingually. The administrator conducting the interview shot
up an eyebrow. "She speaks Spanish?" she asked in alarm, referring to
our daughter, who was seated between us. "Does she need services?"
With this question, our daughter was constructed as a problem, her
bilingualism a deficit, rather than the asset we were so proudly and
carefully cultivating.

We should all urgently hope that the research on the benefits of
bilingualism will be read widely by school administrators in Hartford
and beyond, and that language policies in education will begin to
reflect the findings. The benefits of bilingualism have long been
known by bilingual education scholars.

The benefits of bilingualism for immigrant children are even greater —
including family cohesion, increased self-esteem and stronger cultural
identity — but that has done little to sway policy-makers who must
appease fearful nativist constituents.

The movement to restrict languages in schools is directly connected to
the movement to restrict immigration. Unfortunately, we all lose when
languages are restricted and when our children are denied the
opportunity to become bilingual. The ultimate question, then, is how
long will we allow nativist fears to decide language policy in our
schools? In today's world, an education that does not prepare children
to be at least bilingual and biliterate is a disservice.

Andrea Dyrness is an associate professor of educational studies at
Trinity College in Hartford.


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