Word up to bilingual education

Hornberger, wearing an indigenous South American weaving, displays reading books in native South American tongues.

Photo by Candace diCarlo


Bolivians speak more than 40 languages besides Spanish. The country made education bilingual and intercultural in the 1994 National Education Reform.

South Africans speak multiple African tongues besides English and Afrikaans. The 1993 post-apartheid constitution added the nine African languages to the roster of official national languages and ended the segregation of the education system from four — white, African, Indian and colored (or mixed) — into one integrated system.

What’s a teacher to do?

“South African teachers with formerly homogeneous populations — for example English-speaking Indians — suddenly had half their classroom populations speaking Zulu, for example in Natal,” said Nancy Hornberger, a professor of education and expert on bilingual education, who spent time in both countries last summer. She was struck by the similarity between them. In both countries, parents are not so impressed by the multilingual approach.

“I find it striking that in both countries struggling with the tension between educators’ understanding and policy-makers’ view that children learn best via their first language, there has been a grassroots reaction from parents who want their children to learn the language of power” — Spanish in Bolivia and English in South Africa.

When bilingual education issues crop up in the United States, the roles are frequently reversed. A recent ballot initiative in California cut bilingual education in the state over the protests of Spanish-speaking families and students.

A pedagogically sound approach, said Hornberger, builds education on what the child already knows. That, in a nutshell, is the argument for bilingual education. “It is not just about learning the first language but learning the second language,” said Hornberger. “That is the goal.”

Although the California and Arizona initiatives for English-only education seem to show the United States moving away from bilingual education, Hornberger said she believes the bilingual approach is here to stay. “Americans assume you can just assimilate into one homogeneous identity,” she said, but that’s not how other countries see us. “It depends on which glasses you have on when you’re looking. …Scholars around the world regard us as a great pluralistic society. Assimilation and pluralism both have a strong tradition here.”

Hornberger is writing a book to help teachers, researchers and policy-makers decide what approach in bilingual education would be most effective. Different situations require different solutions. Take the two Philadelphia schools she began studying in 1987 — a North Philadelphia elementary school and the nearby Lea School. The Potter-Thomas school, with a mostly Puerto Rican and African-American population, had a two-way bilingual program, with the English and Spanish speakers learning in both languages, an approach which validates the identity of both groups of children while building on the language they already know. At Lea School, with Southeast Asians and Africans speaking a variety of languages as well as English-speaking students, the bilingual approach was impractical.

“The dilemma is how to build a national identity and still be multicultural and multilingual, how to transform a standardizing education into one that makes space for different languages and cultures,” Hornberger said.

Hornberger is also the convenor of this year’s Ethonography in Education Research Forum, which begins tomorrow. For information, see www.gse.upenn.edu/cue.

Originally published on March 1, 2001