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Accents: Bilingual Education - Part 2

Wednesday, December 18, 2002 at 1:17 PM

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Several states have been battlegrounds over how best to educate non-English speaking public school students. Efforts to kill so-called bilingual education, where students are taught in both their native tongues and in English, have succeeded in California, Arizona and, most recently, Massachusetts. All three states favor what's called the "immersion approach," which requires students to leave their mother tongues at home and use only English at school. There's been no such movement here in Ohio, but a continual quest to find the best recipe for helping foreign-born students adjust and thrive is very much alive. As part of our series Accents, ideastream's Bill Rice looks at one school district's approach to bridging multiple language barriers.

Bill Rice: Pat Hartmann teaches English as a Second Language, or ESL, in the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Schools. She’s the only ESL teacher in the 4,500 pupil district. She says unlike cities like Lorain, whose bilingual and ESL programs target large numbers of Latinos, South Euclid-Lyndhurst serves a much smaller foreign population, few, if any, of whom hail from Spanish-speaking countries.

Pat Hartmann: Most from the former Soviet countries.

BR: Hartmann herself is American born and raised. She learned to speak Russian during her college years, when she majored in Russian Studies and spent a semester in Moscow. With many of her students, her background in Russian is a good fit.

Eugene Zbarashevski: My name is Eugene Zbarashevski. I am fourteen years old.

BR: Eugene has been in the United States for about a year, having come to the U.S. with his mother and brother from Belarus. He says he likes school here much more than back in his native country, although when he explains why it becomes clear he has a way to go in learning English.

EZ: Here science only one period about, about everything and ... onto biology and science which was in ... here it’s one same period. And here same periods every day and and we have different periods each day different periods and repeats every week.

BR: While Pat Hartmann’s Russian language skills are helpful with eastern Europeans students, she says she doesn’t use it much unless they come speaking absolutely no English - it just inhibits their progress. And that puts them on a par with students from other regions that speak languages Hartmann doesn’t know. 15-year-old Frankie Fong is from Hong Kong. His native language is Cantonese. He speaks English about as well as Eugene.

Frankie Fong: It is hard to do everything when I come over to America. My aunt and uncle help me a lot during that time and try to ... school, prepare everything for me.

BR: If their English isn’t so great, both Frankie and Eugene do come to the U.S. with an advantage - they already have a sound educational foundation. Hartmann says that’s not so for all foreign-born students.

PH: Most of the kids from the former Soviet Union, they’re definitely literate in their first language. But I’ve had some other students from Liberia, for example, where there was civil war going on in Liberia for quite a while so these students had giant gaps in their education. So they were definitely several years behind where they should have been because they weren’t in school.

BR: Asked exactly what method of teaching speakers of other languages South Euclid/Lyndhurst employs, Hartmann hedges a bit. It isn’t “bilingual”, since instruction for the most part occurs only in English. But neither is it strictly “English-only”, an approach not only espoused, but also mandated in some states.

pH: Most ESL people don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s fraught with controversy. There are people who want to preserve native languages because they’re trying to simply preserve cultural heritage.

BR: And that’s a big deal for many bilingual advocates. But opponents disagree. Christine Rossell is a political science professor at Boston University and has written extensively in favor of what she calls “Structured English-Only Immersion.” That’s where students are placed in class with others of similar English-speaking ability, but all instruction is in English. Rossell says bilingual program place too much emphasis on learning the finer points of writing and grammar in the native language at the expense of learning better English, and that’s a disservice to students.

Christine Rossell: On the one hand…

BR: Pat Hartmann concedes that not all strictly bilingual programs have worked well. And she agrees that her ESL program more resembles the English immersion approach than the bilingual. In Ohio, it boils down to whatever works - taking into account budgets and human resources, which varies from school district to school district. Education officials at the state level prescribe no particular approach, or combination of approaches - that decision is left strictly to local school districts, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

But whatever the method, Hartmann says, and whatever their skill level, it’s never easy for the students.

pH: They want to learn English, they want to fit in, they want to do well in school. They want friends, they want the same things any kids do. They’re overwhelmed, the task is immense, especially for the kids that are older - I have so much to do in two years or three years. Most of them work hard. They’re upset because they’ve left their friends, their families.

BR: Those are very real issues, Hartmann says, ones that will hopefully diminish over time.

In Lyndhurst, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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