Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bilingual Education

I have such a hard time understanding articles like the following. Read my response to it after you've read the article.


Dearborn schools urged to ban Arabic
School district, Arab community at odds over proposed language ban.
Tanveer Ali / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- A recommendation to bar Arabic speech in the city's most
heavily Arab public high school unless it is absolutely necessary has
sparked a sharp debate between those who say it's necessary to help
students perform better and those who say it only helps alienate them.

A study commissioned by the Wayne County Regional Education Service
Agency said the use of Arabic by students in the bilingual programs in
Dearborn Public Schools slows the assimilation of students "into the
school and American society in general" and fosters suspicion among
students and teachers who don't speak the language.

Students' ability to communicate in the language they feel most
comfortable with is a basic right, said Imad Hamad, regional director of
the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"It should not be touched," Hamad said. "I am not a fan of restricting
or reducing language. I feel that goes against the best interest of any
type of education."

The 44-page report from the Michigan Leadership Institute, an
independent education and municipal consulting group based in Old
Mission in the Grand Traverse Bay area, addressed the usual problems
public high schools grapple with, including overcrowding, test scores
and No Child Left Behind compliance, but also took note of the specific
challenges for the district with an Arab population that reaches as high
as 90 percent in some schools.

Though the language divide is a problem at all three high schools in the
district, the report singled out Fordson High School to prohibit all
non-English use unless absolutely necessary to communicate with parents
or students.

"To do otherwise reinforces a perception by some that Fordson is an Arab
School in America rather than an American school with Arab students,"
the report stated.

District officials said they will explore ways to accelerate students
into English-only classes over the next 18 months.

Intissar Harajli, the district's coordinator of bilingual education,
said the district tests all new students' English proficiency and places
them in English-only or bilingual classes according to their skill
level. All schools and all subjects have bilingual options.

"The misconception is sometimes (determining) when the child has
survival skills they can move on," Harajli said, adding that it takes up
to four years for a new English speaker to gain the skills to adapt to
an English-only classroom.

Kevin Harris, president of the Dearborn Federation of Teachers and a
former economics teacher at Fordson, said a bilingual education is
necessary in the school district, home to many students and parents who
are new to the English language. Yet, he agreed with the report's
assessment that the use of languages other than English "contributes to
an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion on the part of English-only
speaking adults in the schools."

"The report's concern is that there's an overuse of the native tongue
when there didn't really need to be," Harris said. When English speakers
choose to communicate in Arabic he said, "It does make me suspicious and
I think it's rude for them to do this. If situations were reversed, how
would you feel? I don't think they get that."

Non-Arab parents like Tomara Doss, who has a daughter and a sister in
the Dearborn school system, said English-only education is necessary in
order to integrate a community that seems to be distant from American

"Schools should be all English. If you live in America, you are an
American," said Doss, 33, who was picking up her sister from Fordson.
"Not to take anything away from their culture, but only speaking Arabic
won't give them a chance to broaden their horizons."


After doing a little bit of research in language education (during my TESOL minor at BYU), it seems clear to me that bilingual education is the way to go if we want the students to have the best education possible. Of course, that doesn't address the concerns that English only teachers have about what the Arabic speakers are saying, and I supposed that some policies should be put into place so that there's no abusive use of Arabic in the schools. But, there's still the underlying idea that many educators and policy makers advocate a double standard. They want to put lots of money into programs to get young native English speakers into these "high demand" languages like Arabic (I work in an office that's federally funded to produce and provide learning materials to learners of Middle Eastern languages), and yet they are so willing to cut off a native Arabic speakers possibilities to develop high literacy skills in their native language, saying that it prevents them from assimilating. Does teaching Arabic as a second language disassimilate English-speaking students from the rest of the population? No. And does continuing to educate them in their native language of English have a benefit? Yes! So give the native Arabic-speaking students the same chance to be the best learners they can. It's their futures we're talking about here.


Geneil said...

It's a sticky issue, isn't it? I agree that restricting the native language isn't the best solution; at the same time, I agree that high levels of English fluency can only help these students. I wouldn't stop teaching in their native language entirely, just require that some classes be taken in the second language. Bilingual education is the way to go, as long as the native language doesn't take its half out of the middle.

Of course, I wish that native English speakers were required to obtain a working fluency in a second language before they leave high school, too! (With bilingual teaching, until the second language can take over completely for relevant subjects.) I've been lobbying for THAT for a LONG time. :-D

Craig & Jen said...

couldn't disagree more with you Merry. Sorry. It is a deadly situation for me on my job when I can't understand what the suspect is saying. I certainly don't want that. I would love to see all things in this country move to english only. Let them use their native language at home but leave the workplace, school, and other government agencies english only. How frustrating it will be for everyone when all paperwork will have to be in 50 different languages.

Merry said...

I agree with you that using the native language is not a great idea in all situations. But in an educational setting, where we're supposed to be giving these kids the best chance they have for learning and jobs in the future, and when we spend millions of dollars trying to teach English speakers other languages, I don't think that there should be a double standard.