Over the last several decades, the amount of non-native English speakers living in the United States has steadily increased.  Today, roughly 20% of the population speaks a language other than English at home.  The Equal Education Opportunities Act mandates that public schools work to ensure the equal participation of all non-English speaking students.  However, as the immigrant population has grown, so has the controversy over the best way to educate and equip non-native English speaking students for life in the United States.  Today, the language education debate is divided between defenders of bilingual education and English-only advocates.  Far from forthright, the dialogue over bilingual education is fettered with fallacies that quickly make their way as facts into campaign speeches and media sources.  Keep reading if you want to decode some of these popular myths and develop an educated opinion of your own.

Myth:  If previous generations of immigrants were able to learn English and succeed without the advantage of bilingual education programs, today’s non-native English speakers should be able to do the same.

Reality:  The early United States economy called for distinct job skills that often did not require English language proficiency.

Many nineteenth and early-twentieth century immigrants with limited English speaking abilities were able to find work thanks to a booming agricultural and industrial economy.  Today’s global economy demands a mastery of the English language that was not often expected of previous generations of immigrants, making bilingual education  a vital necessity for non-native English speakers.

Myth:  English-only programs accelerate learning so children can become bilingual in a year or less.

Reality:  It typically takes between 5-7 to achieve full academic proficiency in a second language.  Very few immersion programs have succeeded in delivering the alleged “one year miracle”.

Most immersion programs heralded as “one year miracles” often last at least two or three years because of built-in bridge years meant to transition students into the mainstream.  However, study after study reveals that non-native speakers require five or more years to rival their native-speaker peers’ level of academic and English language proficiency.  Students placed in one year immersion programs and then quickly switched into mainstream classrooms often struggle to keep up with native-speaking students in the core academic curriculum.

Myth:  High Latino dropout rates persist because of the misplaced emphasis on failing bilingual education programs instead of English immersion.

Reality:  Studies attribute Latino dropout rates to a diverse mix of factors including poverty, racism, and low academic performance, but never as a direct result of bilingual education.

Critics of bilingual education often point to high Latino dropout rates without acknowledging that less than half of Latino students are considered limited English proficient.  While roughly 30% of Latino dropouts cite language proficiency as a factor, research indicates that well-designed bilingual programs actually lower dropout rates and increase academic performance.

Myth:  Promoting bilingualism will cause a decline in the popularity of the English language, eroding national unity and leading to ethnic separatism.

Reality:  According to the 2007 census, over 96% of United States residents speak English and at least 75% of non-native speakers are English language proficient as well.

A vast majority of Americans speak English proficiently, despite the rising numbers of residents who speak other languages at home.  And the expanding global economy means that multilingualism is the rule rather than the exception in many developed countries.  Because bilingualism is a natural part of a multicultural society, aggressive policies aimed at eradicating all languages other than English are more likely to erode national unity than pro-bilingual policies of inclusion and respect.

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