Jason Feliciano

As an ESL teacher, you hear many differing opinions on how children should be taught English. Parents, teachers, administrators, friends, and colleagues all have their own perspective on what is “right” for children in terms of bilingual education and bilingualism. Many of these views are heartfelt and derived from personal experience; however, these derived conclusions are by no means accurate or applicable to every situation or every child. Two websites that I read about these common misconceptions (Myths about Bilingualism, Common Myths about Bilingualism) reminded me that there are still many in this country and world that need to be educated about the fact and fiction concerning bilingual education.

One unfounded concern I hear during parent-teacher conferences is that the Spanish-speaking parent’s inability to speak English is hurting their child’s ability to learn English. I explain to these parents that it is best that they continue to teach their children their best Spanish, and ensure that their children read and write in Spanish as well. I explain that if their children fully understand the rules of reading, writing, speaking, and listening in Spanish, the children can then take those rules and apply them to learning English—such children are in a far better situation that children who come to the U.S. with no literacy in any language.

These same parents tell me that they pulled their child out of a bilingual program, or initially placed their children in a monolingual program because they will learn English faster if they have more exposure to it. They also use the rationale that in the past, immigrants came into this country into fully monolingual programs and learned English just fine. I explain that, as with those immigrants of the past, just because one is exposed to English a majority of the day doesn’t mean that they will learn English any faster. In most cases, the stress of being in a classroom where everyone speaks a different language from you may hinder second language production. Children may benefit from being “eased” into English through a bilingual education program.

On a similar note, parents who have had children in a bilingual or ESL program for several years either complain that their children still do not fully speak English, or complain that they already speak English and do not need these forms of instruction. I explain that children learn a language at different speeds; also, children acquire different facets of language at different times. For example, while their child may be able to speak English, if you ask them to read or write in the language, they may still be unable to. Many parents are insulted by this, since I am basically implying that they do not keep track of their children’s ability to read and write. However, it is necessary that these parents understand what their children are doing both in school and at home. I have given a similar explanation to my fellow teachers who believe that children in bilingual/ESL programs for extended periods are more likely to have learning disabilities rather than language issues—I have explained to teachers personally and during professional development periods that language acquisition will not be the same for every student.

The one myth that personally affects me the most is the one concerning how children who are raised bilingual make good translators. I was raised in an English/Spanish bilingual household, with both of my parents being able to speak Spanish and English. Despite this, although I understand Spanish very well, my Spanish speaking leaves much to be desired. This has caused many misunderstandings with family and friends, and has now extended into my professional life—teachers and administrators will often assume that I can translate for parent meetings or for parent-teacher conferences simply because I am Hispanic. Parents I come in contact with make this assumption as well. I am often asked: “well, didn’t your parents speak in Spanish? Why don’t you know Spanish now?”

I explain that although I was exposed to Spanish as a child, I didn’t pick it up as quickly as my brothers and cousins, which made me self conscious about my Spanish usage. This snowballed to a point where I am hardly able to speak Spanish at all. I use myself as an example of how important it is to gently foster a child’s second-language development. If we as teachers and parents make assumptions about a child’s ability to acquire a second language, that child will suffer.

How true it is also, that many students from Spanish speaking homes have difficulty in Spanish class. As you mentioned above, even though these students speak Spanish, they may have a lot of difficulty reading and writing it, just as English speakers do. At the HS I taught at, there was also an effort made to separate the navtive spanish speakers from the non-native speakers; many of the non-native speakers resented being in the same class and felt they were at a decided disadvantge. On another note, I was very close to an Israeli family who lived in Brooklyn. Their children enrolled in elementary school here when they arrived (1st & 3rd grade, as I recall), and they both did very well, learning Enlgish very quickly at that age in that environment. Their parents also spoke some English (it's a required subject in school in Israel), and their uncle with whom they lived, was very fluent in English as well. In the household, they continued speaking and studying Hebrew. This served them very well, especially since they returned to Israel after 4 years. The younger child, though, did have some difficulties upon their return with his native language. [Lynne Bailey]

This was very informative. I definitely think the references were great. There is so much information on ESL. It hits home especially with the family. I have a niece she is Puerto Rican and Chinese, she is pretty happy doesn't seem to have any difficulties.I believe she has the best of both worlds. She stays with the Chinese family which is first generation. She is in a regular class. Its good to know that there are relatively too many untrue myth in the school system.
{Arleen Chan}

Jason your hard work as an ESL teacher is appreciated more than you will ever know. No matter how many myths and obstacles you encounter in your teaching of English, the most common one as you have mentioned, is the fact that it takes years for students to master the language. Parents, teachers and even many administrators do not realize how long it may take some children to get a hold of the cognitive academic language. Many will take what is it, three to seven years? Many people assume that just because a students' BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills) Social English skills have been learned, that the student KNOWS English. This is so far from the truth. Once the basic English as been learned then it's time to get serious with academic English. This will take anywhere from three- seven years. This is known as CALPs (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). Remember to explain this to all those who are ready to push ESL children into Special Ed or Mainstream.
deirdre doherty 7/25

Bilingual education is not one thing; it is many. There are at least five different models of bilingual education in the U.S. While all of them share the goals of providing students with equal access to the curriculum and promoting academic success, they differ greatly in the degree to which they promote bilingualism. The vast majority of U.S. programs are designed to use the home language only for a short time as a bridge to English. A main goal is to transition students into all-English classes as quickly as possible, leaving the home language (and much of the culture that goes with it) behind. These are called early-exit transitional programs. Some types of bilingual education promote literacy in English and develop the home language to some extent. These range from late-exit transitional programs to maintenance programs. The most intensive and long-term programs promote full proficiency and literacy in two languages. Therefore, when we question whether bilingual education has been effective or not, we have to first know what the program was designed to do; then we can ask whether it has accomplished that goal.
Tim Sullivan