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 none.)
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 school.
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.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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