A federal appeals court decision last month to side with Arizona’s all-English approach to educating English-language learners at first blush appears to be a setback only for those who advocate bilingual education for these students. But, in reality, it’s a setback for all of us. While employers are clamoring for bilingual or even multilingual employees for an increasingly globalized economy, U.S. schools turn out relatively few students who are even somewhat competent in a second language. Hard figures are unavailable, but we know that only 5 percent of the 4.2 million Advanced Placement exams given in 2014 were in a foreign language, and only slightly more than half these students scored a 4 or a 5. That’s about 100,000 students—about six-tenths of 1 percent of the country’s nearly 16 million high school students. Most egregiously, instead of maintaining and building on the home-language abilities of 11 million students in our public schools, we actually attempt to quash them, if only by neglect.
A University of Phoenix Research Institute survey, reported in The Wall Street Journal, found increasing demand among prospective employers for workers who speak foreign languages, particularly Chinese and Spanish. A New York City executive coach noted, “It’s easier to find [bilingual candidates] jobs, and they often get paid more.” Academic research tends to bear this out: In addition to the University of Phoenix findings, fluent bilingualism has been associated with lower likelihood of dropping out of high school and higher probability of having a higher status job with higher earnings. Conversely, monolingualism may have costs: A lack of proficiency in one’s primary language was found to be associated with annual income losses between $2,100 and $3,300.
Arizona is making a bad situation worse. It is one of three states—the others being California and Massachusetts—that enacted policies severely limiting the use of students’ home languages. They did so in the belief that adopting the policy would greatly accelerate English acquisition and academic achievement for English-learners. This assumption is perhaps understandable, but studies have shown it is mistaken: Full-on English immersion for students with limited English proficiency does not, in the long run, accelerate their English acquisition and academic achievement.