The Failure of Bilingual Education

By Thomas Sowell
Volume 3, Number 3 (Spring 1993)
Issue theme: "A land of opportunity: crime and immigration"

The theory behind bilingual education is that youngsters who do not understand English can best be taught school subjects in their native language, taking English classes as a separate subject, rather than be subjected to an all-English education from the first day. The children of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries have been the principal focus of bilingualism, but once the idea caught on in the political arena and in the courtrooms, it expanded to include school children of Asian, Middle Eastern, and other backgrounds, and ultimately drew into its orbit even native-born American children whose only language was English. While most of the bilingual programs have featured the Spanish language, some have been in Chinese, Armenian, Navajo, and more than a hundred other languages.1

A landmark on the road to bilingualism was the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols that it was an unconstitutional denial of equal protection to provide only an English-language education to non-English-speaking school children. While the Supreme Court did not specify what alternative education must be provided, organized ethnic activists now had leverage to push for bilingualism, using the threat of lawsuits and political charges of discrimination and racism against school systems which resisted the activists' agenda.

Both legally and educationally, there were many possible ways of dealing with the language difficulties of foreign school children, and both school officials and parents might have been given discretion to choose among various options. For example, the foreign students might have been given a course on English as well, either immediately or after a transition period. At the other end of the range of possibilities, the children might be taught in a foreign language for years, perhaps with only token gestures toward making them English speakers. The relentless political pressures of ethnic activists have been directed toward the latter system - that is, establishing whole programs taught in a foreign language.

The political clout of these ethnic activists was reflected in Congress' restrictions on what percentage of federal spending in this area could be on programs teaching English as a second language, rather than on programs taught in foreign languages and given the label 'bilingual.' During the Carter administration, only 4 percent of the money could be spent on programs featuring English as a second language. Even under the Reagan administration (which was more critical on bilingualism), this rose only to 25 percent. In short, parents and school officials alike have been restricted in their ability to choose how to deal with foreign students' language problems, if their choice did not coincide with that of ethnic activists.

These ethnic activists - the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Council of La Raza, and others - have developed a whole agenda, going well beyond the language programs of school children. They argue that the 'societal power structure' of white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking Americans handicaps non-English-speaking children, not only by presenting education in a language with which these children will have difficulty, but also by making these children ashamed of their own language and culture, and by making the abandonment of their ancestral culture the price of acceptance in the educational system and in American society. Consistent with this general vision, the educational deficiencies and high drop-out rates of Hispanic students, for example, are blamed on such assaults on their culture and self-esteem.

Given this vision, the agenda of the ethnic activists is not one of transitional programs to acquire English-language skills, but rather a promotion of the foreign language as a medium of instruction throughout the curriculum, promotion of the study and praise of other aspects of the foreign culture in the schools, and (whether openly avowed or not) promotion of a sense of historic grievances against American society, both on their own behalf and on behalf of other presumed victims of American and Western civilization, at home and around the world. In short, the activist agenda goes well beyond language education, or even education in general, to encompass political and ideological issues to be addressed in the public schools at taxpayer expense - and at the expense of time available for academic subjects, this activist agenda has provoked counter-responses by various individuals and groups, including school teacher, parents, and such civic organizations as 'U.S.ENGLISH' and 'LEAD' (Learning English Advocates Drive). The resulting clashes have ranged from shouting matches in school meetings to legal battles in the federal courts. Bilingual education has been characterized by the Washington Post as 'the single most controversial area in public education.'2

Studies of the educational effectiveness of bilingualism and of alternative approaches have been as much shrouded in controversy as every other aspect of this issue. Yet the preponderant weight of the political system and the educational system has been solidly behind bilingualism, just as if it were a proven success, and its advocates have kept bilingual programs well-supplied with school children, through methods which often circumvent the parents of both foreign and native-born children.

In San Francisco, for example, thousands of English-speaking children with educational deficiencies were assigned to bilingual classes, blacks being twice as likely to be so assigned as whites. Hundreds of other youngsters, who in fact had a foreign language as their mother tongue, were assigned to bilingual classes in a different foreign language.3 Thus a Chinese immigrant child could be assigned to a bilingual program because of speaking a foreign language - but then be put into a Spanish language class. Similarly, a Spanish-speaking child might be put into a Chinese language class - all this being based on where space happened to be available, rather than on the actual education needs of the particular child. 'Bilingual-education classes,' according to the leader of a Chinese American organization, have also been 'used as a 'dumping ground' for educationally disadvantaged students or students with behavior problems.'4

In short, maintaining or expanding enrollment in bilingual programs, has clearly taken priority over educating children. Moreover, the deception common in other programs promoted by zealots has also been common in bilingual programs. District administrators interviewed by the San Francisco Examiner 'downplayed the number of black students assigned to bilingual classes, first estimating the number at three' - an estimate subsequently raised to about a hundred, though the real figure turned out to be more than 750. A civil rights attorney representing minority children characterized the whole approach as a 'mindless' practice of 'assigning kids to wherever there is space.' It is not wholly mindless, however. Children whose parents are poorer, less educated, and less sophisticated are more likely to be assigned, or to remain, in bilingual programs. 'More vocal white parents manage to maneuver their kids out of bilingual classes,' as the civil rights attorney noted.5

The San Francisco situation is by no means unique. A national study of bilingual programs found large numbers of English-speaking minority students in programs taught in foreign languages and ostensibly designed for youngsters unable to speak English. Only 16 percent of all the students in such programs were students who spoke only Spanish - the kind of student envisioned when bilingual programs were instituted. A study in Texas found that most school districts automatically categorized as 'limited English proficiency' students - eligible for bilingual programs - even those Hispanic children who spoke only English and whose parents only occasionally spoke Spanish at home. The study concluded that English was 'the dominant language' of most of the students participating in the bilingual programs surveyed.6 Again, the whole thrust of the policy was toward maximizing enrollments.

Hispanic youngsters are not spared in the ruthless sacrifices of school children to the interests of the bilingual lobby. American-born, English-speaking students with Spanish surnames have often been targeted for inclusion in bilingual programs. Forced to speak Spanish during so-called bilingual classes, such youngsters have been observed speaking English among themselves during recess.7 A bilingual education teacher in Massachusetts reported speaking to Puerto Rican children in Spanish and having them reply in English.8 Research in several California school districts showed that children classified as 'limited English proficient' ranged from being predominantly better in Spanish than English in districts closer to the Mexican border to being predominantly better in English than in Spanish in districts farther north, with about two-thirds being equally proficient (or deficient) in the two languages in the intermediate city of Santa Barbara.9 A large-scale national study of bilingual programs found that two-thirds of the Hispanic children enrolled in such programs were already fluent in English, and more than four-fifths of the directors of such programs admitted that they retained students in their programs after the students had mastered English.10

While the rationale for so-called bilingual programs has been presented to the public in terms of the educational needs of children whose native language is not English, what actually happens in such programs bears little relationship to that rationale. It bears much more relationship to the careers and ideologies of bilingual activists. A study of Hispanic middle-school students in Boston, for example, found that 45 percent had been kept in bilingual programs for six years or more.11 The criteria for being taken out of such programs are often based on achieving a given proficiency in English, so that students are retained in bilingual programs even when their English is better than their Spanish. A bilingual education teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts reported her frustration in trying for years to get such students transferred into regular classrooms

Each year we had the same disagreement. I argued that the students, according to test scores and classroom performance, had made enough progress in English to be able to work in a regular classroom, with some further attention to their reading and writing skills. The department head argued that they must remain in the bilingual program as long as they were not yet reading at grade level. It did not matter when I countered that many American students who speak only English do not read at grade level, or that after six or seven years of heavy instruction in Spanish without achieving good results it was probably time to try a different approach.12

Students retained in bilingual programs for years, without mastering either English or Spanish, have sometimes been characterized as 'semi-lingual,' rather than bilingual. The bilingual label is often grossly misleading also in terms of the token amount of time spent on English - perhaps a couple of hours a week - in programs which are predominantly foreign language programs, where students may spend years before taking a single subject taught in English.13

The great majority of Hispanic parents - more than three-fourths of Mexican American parents and more than four-fifths of Cuban American parents - are opposed to the teaching of Spanish in the schools at the expense of English.14 Many Asian refugee parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, likewise declared their opposition to bilingual education for their children.15 In Springfield, Massachusetts, the Spanish-speaking bilingual teachers themselves put their own children in private schools, so that they would not be subjected to bilingual education.16 Parents in Los Angeles who did not want their children enrolled in bilingual programs have been pressured, deceived, or tricked into agreement or seeming agreement. By and large, ethnic activists oppose giving parents an option.17

That the wishes of both majority and minority parents have been over-ridden or circumvented suggests something of the power and the ruthlessness of the bilingual lobby. Much of this power comes from the U.S. Department of Education, where ethnic activists have been prominent among those writing federal guidelines, which go much further than the courts or the Congress in forcing bilingual programs into schools and forcing out alternative ways of dealing with the language problems of non-English-speaking children.18 However, bilingual activists have also been active in state and local agencies, and have been ruthless in smearing or harassing those who do not go along with the agenda.19

More than ideological zealotry is involved in the relentless drive to maintain and expand enrollment in bilingual programs, at all costs. Federal and local subsidies add up to hundreds of dollars per child for students enrolled in bilingual programs, and teachers proficient in Spanish received bonuses amounting to thousands of dollars each annually. Bilingualism has been aptly described as 'a jobs program for Spanish-speaking teachers.'20

Teachers from foreign countries who speak one of the languages used in bilingual programs can be hired in California without passing the test of basic skills required of other teachers, even if they lack a college degree and are not fluent in English.21 At the University of Massachusetts, candidates for their bilingual teacher program were, for a number of years, not even tested in English - all testing being done in Spanish. Moreover, a non-Hispanic woman who was fluent in Spanish, and who had taught for years in Mexico, was rejected on grounds that she was not sufficiently familiar with Puerto Rico. Among the questions she was asked was the name of three small rivers in the interior of the island22 - a tactic reminiscent of the questions once asked by Southern voter registrars to keep blacks form being eligible to vote.

The costs of bilingualism add up. In Dade County, Florida, it cost 50 percent more to educate an immigrant child than the cost of educating a non-immigrant child. Oakland, California found that it was spending $7 million annually to provide native-language instruction.23 Nationally, expenditures on bilingual education have tripled in a decade.24 The largest costs, however, are paid by the students who go through programs which claim to teach them two languages but often fail to teach them mastery of one. Among adults, Hispanics fluent in English earn incomes comparable to other Americans of the same age and education level.25 To deny them that fluency is to create a life-long economic handicap.

The virtually unanimous support of bilingualism among Hispanic activists, 'leaders' and 'spokesmen' - in contrast to Hispanic parents - is understandable only in terms of the self-interest of those activists, 'leaders' and 'spokesmen,' who benefit from the preservation of a separate ethnic enclave, preferably alienated from the larger society. This is not peculiar to Hispanics. Similar patterns can be found around the world. Activists, 'leaders' and 'spokesmen' for Australian aborigines promote the teaching of aboriginal languages to aborigines who already speak English, just as Maori activists in New Zealand push the teaching of the Maori language to Maoris who have grown up speaking English. In these and other countries, separate language maintenance has been part of a larger program of separatism and alienation in general. In all these disparate settings, the education of school children has been sacrificed to the financial and ideological interests of activists.

Promoters of so-called bilingual education, like the promoters of other forms of separatism, often claim that they are promoting intergroup harmony and mutual respect. 'Language diversity within a society reduces ethnocentrism,' one such promoter claims,26 but it would be hard to find concrete examples of this anywhere on this planet, while there are all too many counter-examples of nations torn apart by ethnic polarization in Malaysia, murderous riots in India, and out-right civil war in Sri Lanka, to name just a few. Sri Lanka is an especially poignant example, for it was at one time justly held up to the world as a model of intergroup harmony - before language politics became a major issue.27

One of the most widely used, and most tendentious, arguments in favor of the foreign-language and foreign-culture programs operating under the bilingual label is that a changing racial and cultural mix in the United States requires such programs, in order for American society to accommodate the newcomers. 'People of color will make up one-third of the net additions to the U.S. labor force between 1985 and 2000,' according to one bilingual advocate, who has urged 'second-language competencies by all students,' because otherwise a merely transitional bilingual program for minorities will lead to 'the erosion, rather than the maintenance of, the minority languages.'28

First of all, when people say that racial, ethnic, or linguistic minorities will make up some projected percentage of 'net additions to the U.S. labor force,' there is mush less there than meets the eye. The American population and labor force are growing slowly, so that any given fraction of that small increment is not a major factor in the over-all composition of the country's population or labor force. Even if it were, it is a non sequitur to say that special language programs must be established for newcomers, in a country where millions of newcomers have flooded in for generations on end, without any such programs being established.

Inflating the size of the population affected by language policy by speaking of 'people of color' ignores the fact that most of those people of color are black, native-born, English-speaking people. Finally, even for those people who come to the United States speaking a different language, they not only can learn English but are in fact learning English, just as other immigrants did before them. Virtually all second-generation Hispanics speak English and more than half of all third-generation Hispanics speak only English.29 All the sound and flurry of the bilingual advocates is directed toward countering this natural evolution, which will otherwise deprive them of the separate and alienated ethnic enclaves so useful to 'leaders' - and so detrimental to minorities as a whole and to the society as a whole.

The political success of bilingual activists - despite the opposition of parents and teachers, and despite both scholarly studies and journalistic exposés revealing the fraudulence of their claims - has wider implications for the vulnerability of the political process to strident special interests who are organized and ruthless. Education at all levels is especially vulnerable to promoters of their own ideological or financial interests in the name of some group for whom they claim to speak. In Los Angeles, which has one of the largest bilingual programs in the country, more than three-quarters of the school teachers oppose such programs - but to no avail. Bilingual activists have been so successful in branding critics as 'racists' opposed to Hispanic people that an organization critical of bilingualism keeps their membership secret.30 Intimidation and character assassination tactics have proved effective all the way up to the college and university levels, and for other groups besides Hispanics. Sometimes it is sufficient to accuse people merely of 'insensitivity' to accomplish the same political result.


One of the most tendentious words in the vocabulary of multiculturalism is 'sensitivity.' When it is proclaimed that one must become more 'sensitive' to various ethnic, linguistic, sexual, or lifestyle groups, neither a reason nor a definition usually accompanies this opaque imperative. Moreover, what is called 'sensitivity' often involves being less sensitive, in order to be more ideologically in fashion. For example, it is considered 'insensitive' to use the word 'Orientals' instead of 'Asians' (even though the Orient or east is ultimately just a direction - and no one considers it insensitive to refer to the West or to Westerners). But, where there is a substantive difference between 'Orientals' and 'Asians,' the former is the more specific term, referring to persons of Chinese, Japanese, and related racial ancestry, while the latter geographical term encompasses as well the racially different peoples of India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

In other countries as well, to be 'sensitive' in the ideological sense is to be insensitive to finer distinctions. In Britain, for example, to be ideologically sensitive is to call non-white Britons 'black,' whether they are in fact Chinese, Pakistani, or West Indian. In Canada, the phrase that lumps all non-whites together is 'visible minorities.' In the United States, the corresponding phrase is 'people of color.'

In plain English, to make finer distinctions is to be more sensitive, but in educational Newspeak, 'sensitivity' means going along with current ideological fashions. When racially and culturally heterogeneous groups are lumped together - whether as 'Asians' in the United States, 'blacks' in Britain or 'visible minorities' in Canada - the ideological point is to depict them all as victims of whites, and their economic, educational or other problems as being due to that victimization. What a finer breakdown would reveal is that some of these groups differ as much from one another as they do from whites, whether in race, income, education, or cultural patterns. In some cases, particular ethnic groups within the broad category depicted as victims actually exceed the income or occupational status of whites. The taboo against finer distinctions among such groups serves to conceal such ideologically inconvenient facts.

'Sensitivity' goes in only one direction. It is seldom considered insensitive to refer to individuals or groups as 'Anglos' or 'WASPs' (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants), even when they are in fact Celtic, Semitic, or Slavic in ancestry or Catholic, Judaic, or agnostic in religion. Nor are the most sweeping stereotypes about 'Anglos' or 'WASPs' likely to be questioned, either as to taste or accuracy.

The charge of 'insensitivity' applies far more widely than to names, though usually with the same one-sidedness. To be sensitive, as ideologically defined, requires that one not merely accept but 'affirm' other people's way of life or even 'celebrate' diversity in general. Like other demands for 'sensitivity,' this demand offers no reason - unless fear of being disapproved, denounced, or harassed is a reason. If the thought is that anyone who really understood, or tried to understand, others' cultures would necessarily approve, then this is simply an unsubstantiated dogma posing as a moral imperative. Moreover, automatic approval has no meaning, except as a symptom of successful intimidation.

If you have no right to disapprove, then your approval means nothing. It may indeed be distressing to someone to have you express your opinion that his lifestyle is disgusting and his art, music or writing is crude, shallow, or repugnant, but unless you are free to reach such conclusions, any praise you bestow is hollow and suspect. To say that A has a right to B's approval, is to say that B has no right to his own opinion. What is even more absurd, the 'sensitivity' argument is not even consistent, because everything changes drastically according to who is A and who is B. Those in the chosen groups may repudiate any aspect of the prevailing culture, without being considered insensitive, but no one from the prevailing culture may repudiate any aspect of other cultures. ¦


1 See Laurel Shaper Walter, 'American Dreamers Learn the Lingo,' Christian Science Monitor, November 5, 1990, p. 12; Rosalie Pedalino Porter, 'The Disabling Power of Ideology Challenging the Basic Assumptions of Bilingual Education,' Learning in Two Languages From Conflict to Consensus in the Reorganization of Schools, edited by Gary Imhoff (New Brunswick, N.J. Transaction Publishers, 1990), p. 22.

2 Rosalie Pedalino Porter, 'Language Trap No English, No Future,' Washington Post, April 22, 1990, p. B3.

3 Diana Walsh, 'S.F.'s Bilingual Bombshell,' San Francisco Examiner, May 19, 1991, p. A-1.

4 Peter Schmidt, 'Blacks' Assignment to Bilingual Classes in S.F. is Criticized,' Education Week, June 12, 1991, p. 13. Bilingual education programs have also sometimes been used as dumping grounds for problem teachers. See Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Forked Tongue, p. 29.

5 Diana Walsh, 'S.F.'s Bilingual Bombshell,' San Francisco Examiner, May 19, 1991, p. A-18.

6 Keith Baker and Christine Rossell, 'An Implementation Problem Specifying the Target Group for Bilingual Education,' Education Policy, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1987), pp. 262-263.

7 Linda Chavez, Out of the Barrio Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation (New York Basic Books, 1991), p. 37.

8 Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Forked Tongue, p. 21.

9 Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt, 'The Relative Proficiency of Limited English Proficient Students,' Current Issues in Bilingual Education, edited by James E. Alatis (Washington, D.C. Georgetown University Press, 1980), p. 183.

10 Linda Chavez, Out of the Barrio, p. 20.

11 Keith Baker and Christine Rossell, 'An Implementation Problem Specifying the Target Group for Bilingual Education,' Education Policy, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1987), p. 263.

12 Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Forked Tongue, p. 34.

13 Joan Keefe, 'Bilingual Education Costly, Unproductive,' Christian Science Monitor, August 1985, p. 16. See also Sally Peterson, 'A Practicing Teacher's Views on Bilingual Education The Need for Reform,' Learning in Two Languages, edited by Gary Imhoff, p. 244; Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Forked Tongue, p. 6.

14 Linda Chavez, Out of the Barrio, p. 29. See also Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Forked Tongue, p. 33.

15 Rosalie Pedalino Porter, 'The Disabling Power of Ideology Challenging the Basic Assumptions of Bilingual Education,' Learning in Two Languages, edited by Gary Imhoff, p. 34.

16 Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Forked Tongue, p. 35.

17 Sally Peterson, 'A Practicing teacher's Views on Bilingual Education The Need for Reform,' Learning in Two Languages, edited by Gary Imhoff, pp. 246-247.

18 Linda Chavez, Out of the Barrio, pp. 15-16.

19 Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Forked Tongue, pp. 39, 42-58.

20 Richard Bernstein, 'A War of Words,' New York Times Magazine, October 14, 1990, p. 53.

21 Sally Peterson, 'A Practicing Teacher's Views on Bilingual Education The Need for Reform,' Learning in Two Languages, edited by Gary Imhoff, p. 252.

22 Rosalie Pedalino Porter, Forked Tongue, p. 27.

23 Hugh Davis Graham, American Liberalism and Language Policy Should Liberals Support Official English? (Washington, D.C. U.S. English, 1990), pp. 18, 20.

24 Edward B. Fiske, 'One Language or Two?,' New York Times, Section 12 Education Fall Survey, November 10, 1985, p. 45.

25 Walter McManus, William Gould, and Finis Welch, 'Earnings of Hispanic Men The Role of English Language Performance,' Journal of Labor Economics, April 1983, pp. 101-130.

26 James A. Banks, 'Fostering Language and Cultural Literacy in the Schools,' Learning in Two Languages, edited by Gary Imhoff, p. 11.

27 See Robert N. Kearney, Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon (Durham, N.C. Duke University Press, 1967).

28 Ibid, pp. 2, 11, 12.

29 Linda Chavez, Out of the Barrio, p. 134.

30 Sally Peterson, 'A Practicing Teacher's Views on Bilingual Education The Need for Reform,' Learning in Two Languages, edited by Gary Imhoff, pp. 252, 254.

About the author

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. An economist, Mr. Sowell

indicts American education from kindergarten to the university.