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ESL MiniConference Online!

American Society Stands to Gain From Bilingual Ed
Richard Russell Says U.S. Can Learn From Immigrant Cultures

There is a heated debate raging today in the United States over the relative merits of bilingual education and immersion ESL for students at the elementary and secondary school levels. Recently these issues were discussed in a series of lively exchanges on the FLTEACH listserv. One of the participants in that debate was Richard Russell, who shares his comments with the readers of ESL MiniConference Online in the following article.

In response to the current debate over bilingual education, let me just say that no one is proposing that we teach all immigrant children in their native languages.

Research does support (I'll come up with citations if necessary) the idea that educating children in their native language while simultaneously teaching them subject content in English produces the most progress in English.

Obviously, we can't do this for every non-native child in the country. However, in areas where there are large numbers of immigrants who speak the same language, compassion for the children and our own self-interest means that we should try bilingual education, usually of the Spanish variety.

That the children benefit is currently an issue; but probably shouldn't be so. As I say, I'll come up with citations in favor of bilingual education if anyone wants me to.

As to self-interest, surely we want well-educated immigrant children who will contribute to society and not live on government hand-outs or sell our middle-class children drugs, or even assault us as we visit the inner cities where poorly-educated, desperate people tend to live.

Of course, there's a problem even getting enough bilingual Spanish/English teachers--let alone Vietnamese/English or Arabic/English. In these latter cases, about the best we can do is an ESL program.

Speaking for a purely personal viewpoint and allowing myself to dangerously overgeneralize, I wouldn't mind this country being somewhat "de-Americanized" if we could import into our culture some of Asian families' dedication to education or Hispanics' generally respectful attitude towards teachers and literary/cultural figures.

Unfortunately, I do believe our American civilization with its anti-intellectual/materialistic core will continue to flourish. Moreover, I certainly welcome the continuance of many "American" traits like our undoubted individualism, democracy, and (relative) social mobility.

I, too, remember being very grateful upon returning from Colombia, South America, to the United States. On the other hand, during the Vietnamese War, I wanted to be anyplace BUT the U.S.

As Carlos Fuentes remarks in his "Buried Mirror" video series, the multi-cultural, multi-racial U.S. behemoth is difficult to understand and describe. The world would truly be poorer without us. On the other hand, we ourselves would truly be richer if we were more willing to learn from the immigrants among us.

By Richard Russell

2002 ESL MiniConference Online