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How Much Use of the Native Language is Appropriate?

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Periodically school districts consider barring the use of Spanish among Spanish-speaking students in a school and usually an advocacy or civil rights group in the community intervenes and the ban is never imposed, or is lifted. But here's a new twist on an old issue.

In the Dearborn, Mich., community, The Detroit News reported this week, educators are debating what's the appropriate use of Arabic in the school district, after a study commissioned by a county education service agency said the use of Arabic by bilingual students in the district is slowing their assimilation into American society. (Update: A follow-up article in The Detroit News, "Dearborn schools to remain bilingual," tells how the superintendent of the district is reassuring teachers and staff that the use of Arabic will not be discontinued.)

The study singles out Fordson High School, which has a bilingual program for English-language learners, and recommends that the school prohibit all non-English use unless it's necessary for educators to communicate with parents or students, according to the Jan. 15 article (hat tip to This Week in Education).

The article doesn't mention the fact that, ironically, Dearborn schools are participating in a grant received by Michigan State University from the U.S. Department of Defense to produce graduates who are truly bilingual in both English and Arabic, which I reported on for Education Week in Oct. 2006. Before that grant was awarded, I wrote an article for Education Week, " 'Heritage Speakers': Loss of a Treasure?," about how Dearborn schools had to limit its offerings of Arabic classes (these were classes generally intended for English-dominant students who had exposure to Arabic at home, not the immigrant students) because of a lack of funds.

It seems that the best-case scenario in Dearborn would be for the schools to figure out how to help students to learn English well—and also strengthen their skills in Arabic at the same time. The federal government has acknowledged for years that it has a huge demand for Arabic/English speakers.


3 Comments

Depending on a thoughtful policy concerning heritage languages from the government has proven ineffective these past eight years. Ben Ward's question in your on-line sessions concerning ESL and Arne Duncan applies to other languages as well. You and the readers would be glad to know that when it comes to Vietnamese, we are taking the lead in our communities in Texas, California, Minnesota and Florida to develop curriculum, train teachers and offer classes to the next generations of Vietnamese Americans born here. We have also started exploring the scalability and resources to offer Vietnamese to all children and adults utilizing current teacher training strategies, learning and teaching styles as well as technology. We are also looking into the fastest growing language being offered in the US, Cantonese and Mandarin and we are working with the Chinese Ministry of Education and its Confucius Institute offerings to make sure that teachers of Chinese utilize newer and more advanced pedagogy.

Mya be the US government will catch up with its people one day. That would be a blessing under President Obama.

Depending on a thoughtful policy concerning heritage languages from the government has proven ineffective these past eight years. Ben Ward's question in your on-line sessions concerning ESL and Arne Duncan applies to other languages as well. You and the readers would be glad to know that when it comes to Vietnamese, we are taking the lead in our communities in Texas, California, Minnesota and Florida to develop curriculum, train teachers and offer classes to the next generations of Vietnamese Americans born here. We have also started exploring the scalability and resources to offer Vietnamese to all children and adults utilizing current teacher training strategies, learning and teaching styles as well as technology. We are also looking into the fastest growing language being offered in the US, Cantonese and Mandarin and we are working with the Chinese Ministry of Education and its Confucius Institute offerings to make sure that teachers of Chinese utilize newer and more advanced pedagogy.

Mya be the US government will catch up with its people one day. That would be a blessing under President Obama.

"It seems that the best-case scenario in Dearborn would be for the schools to figure out how to help students to learn English well—and also strengthen their skills in Arabic at the same time."

This quote concerns me a little. There are so many demands already on the school systems - we are expected to teach them everything from math to sex ed to character traits. Now this school in Michigan is expected to teach Arabic skills as well? What about the other language groups represented? How can we possibly teach children all that is expected AND teach them skills in their native language? It's overwhelming.

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