Jim Lyons: Lack of bilingual education a “tongue envy” phenomenon

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Jim Lyons, civil rights attorney in Virginia and advocate for bilingual education

James J. Lyons is a former staff member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who served in the Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter. Lyons lends his perspective to VOXXI on the state of bilingual education and its prominence on the national agenda. For 16 years, he was a lobbyist for and the then executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. He is currently a civil rights attorney in Virginia.

Q: As more U.S. Latinos are born in the states, many dispute the future of Spanish language. What does bilingual education mean for Latino students and future generations? 

Second and third generation Latinos who are bilingual in English and Spanish will have greater economic and professional opportunities, stronger families, a better sense of their cultural heritage and their self-worth.  They will be better prepared for college and careers in the 21st Century, and are not as likely to suffer dementia or Alzheimer’s as early as their monolingual peers.

Q: Is there enough support for the implementation of bilingual education in public schools? Why or why not and in which states is it heavily contested?

No, there is not nearly enough support for bilingual education.  Partially because of fiscal crunch, partly because of the distractions of No Child Left Behind, partly because Americans still think English is enough.  The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world to have a one-language educational standard.  Bilingual education is not heavily contested anywhere at the present time.  Illinois and Texas have laws that require transitional bilingual education and large numbers of children are being served by them.  Local grassroots movement towards dual language or developmental bilingual education is growing and many communities are implementing dual language programs which capitalize on the non-English language skills Hispanic and other immigrant groups bring to school.   At the state level, Utah and Delaware are moving to embrace world languages.  One reason for local enthusiasm for dual language programs is the body of neuroscience evidence that bilingualism and multilingualism improves brain function, cognitive ability, learning, and student achievement test scores.

Q: Some critics argue that bilingual education is ineffective for English learners. Do you think there are other underlying factors beside education to this debate and has it become too politicized? 

Many factors including:  linguistic arrogance – the whole world is learning English so why do we have to learn “their” language and what I term “tongue envy”- not wanting others to have something they lack. There’s also a persistent mythology about bilingualism and multilingualism and language learning – that it’s difficult to accomplish, causes confusion in young children, and that immersion is better. There’s also a false link between language and loyalty. And there is nativism, xenophobia, and racism.

Q: How much of a priority do you think the Obama administration has given bilingual education and what’s your evaluation on the blueprint for education reform?

Barack Obama’s administration is just a tragic disappointment and it probably has to do with the fact with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I think it’s for political reasons only. In regards to the administration’s blueprint for education reform, I’ve seen bar napkin doodles that are more cogent and coherent. Real interesting how he’s avoided this issue of children who need to learn English and also need to learn in a timely fashion the entire content of education. Last year, they released NAEP scores for Hispanic students and NAEP scores were set up separately for Hispanic students and students who were English language learners and “Time” magazine looked at the scores and saw that the real problem confronting Hispanic communities and families is fundamentally an issue of language and they in fact asked the Department of Education pointed questions: Isn’t this really not so much an ethnic issue, it’s a language issue?

And the Department absolutely denied that language was the critical element. Yet, the scores showed that Hispanic students who were English proficient generally were doing quite well compared to Anglo student populations. It was the students of limited English proficiency, who constitute almost half of Hispanic students in the country who were in dire need and this administration has done nothing.

Q: You’ve been an advocate for bilingual education for years. What can you tell me about the position each administration has taken in addressing this issue and where do you see this discussion going?

Right now in this country, we have 50 million Americans who speak a language other than English at home. About three-quarters of that 50 million speak Spanish at home, but the other one quarter speaks virtually every world language plus a large number that are indigenous, Native American languages. Never in our history has such a significant number of people spoken a language other than English.

Currently, about 12 million students speak a language other than English again about three quarters are native Spanish speakers. Roughly half of those students (six million) they are not going to receive an equal education and an effective education if it is delivered only in English.

There are two grades: Civil rights and education policy and programs. Political environment and personality of Secretaries of Education are variables.  I would give Carter, A and A.  Reagan, B and C, George Herbert Walker Bush, B and A, Clinton, B and A, George W. Bush, D and F (he repealed the 1968 Bilingual Education Act by enacting No Child Left Behind).  Barack Obama A on civil rights, and F on educational policies and programs.

You can reach James Lyons at:  jamesjohnlyons@verizon.net

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