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Bilingual Education and Equality

Being able to speak multiple languages can be a blessing, and it can be a challenge when it comes to education. Bilingual education refers to the issues inherent in educating students who do not read, speak, and understand English as their first language. States and local governments often struggle with providing a solid education for their bilingual students without jeopardizing the educational growth of its English language learners. This section provides information and resources on bilingualism in education, including types of bilingual education, bilingual cases and laws, and state and local initiatives aimed at providing bilingual education programs.

History of Bilingual Education

Bilingual education has become a highly politicized topic. Some feel that a bilingual education helps students prepare for a multilingual adult life, while also ensuring that students learning English as a second language have equal access to educational opportunities. Opponents of bilingual education insist that English is the de facto official language of the United States and feel that English fluency is an issue of integration, while also pointing out that failing to ensure that students are comfortable using English as their primary language can result in the loss of many business and social opportunities in their adult lives.

Interestingly, bilingual education is not a new development in the United States. In colonial North America German and French language schools were common where communities made up of expatriates of those countries existed. Important government documents in the colonial and revolutionary periods were frequently published in these languages, in addition to English. Successive waves of immigration have introduced large communities speaking languages from virtually every corner of the globe. By the early 1900s there was more pressure for non-English speakers to learn English. In 1906 English fluency became a requirement for naturalization. At present the issue remains unresolved, with competing philosophies regarding how best to serve communities.

Types of Bilingual Education

Schools have frequently adopted one of two basic approaches to their non-English speaking students. Some schools offer bilingual programs, while others offer English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. There is little consensus on what the methods or goals of bilingual education should be. Even among parents and teachers there are supporters and detractors of the notions surrounding bilingualism in the classroom.

Bilingual programs are frequently a mixture of native English and non-native English speakers. Instruction in these classes is given in both English and the secondary language. A variation on this type of program is the "transitional" or "early-exit" program. These programs seek mastery of English, rather than bilingualism. They are usually entirely made up of students learning English. These classes start out in the native language, progressing until the student is capable of interacting entirely in English. At this point the student is transferred into English-only classes.

ESL programs do not seek to provide bilingual education, but rather seek to teach English in a sheltered English or structured immersion program. These may include "pull-out" programs, where students are pulled-out of their regular classes for part of the day for lessons in their native tongue.

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