Bilingual Education: Unlocking California's Potential

The California Seal of Biliteracy. (Granite Bay Today)

The California Seal of Biliteracy. (Granite Bay Today)

Over 10 million immigrants call California home, and they are quickly becoming our teachers, business owners, doctors and other integral players in our community. With these changing demographics, it is paramount that California acknowledges its growing multiculturalism and embrace bilingual education to ensure that its students are set up for success at an early age.

In 1998, the multilingual educational community faced a major setback with the passage of Proposition 227, the English Language in Public Schools Statute. This act required that all California public schools be taught in English, even for students who were deemed English Language Learners. Parents who wished to enroll their children in one of the only 425 dual language programs in the state were required to sign a waiver. The fact that students who were just learning the language were forced to learn in an English-only environment stifled their academic opportunities and widened the achievement gap between native speakers and English learners.  

Voters recently repealed this law by passing Proposition 58, the California Multilingual Education Act, in 2016. The new law, effective since July 1, 2017, gives public schools more control over dual language programs. While schools are not required to implement new dual language programs, they do need to discuss with community members the possibility of implementing new programs.

There are countless cognitive, economic and social benefits that multilingual individuals enjoy. Compared to their monolingual counterparts, bilingual people have an easier time with mathematical skills, focusing, decision making, using logic, memory and so much more. Economists have found that being bilingual has a substantial effect on later wage earnings. Even language graduates who ended up in fields that did not make full use of their bilingual capabilities still enjoyed increased wages. A study by New American Economy found that the demand for bilingual workers had doubled between 2010 and 2015. Socially, English language learners in dual language education programs have stronger ties to their family and culture. In addition, all individuals who are bilingual benefit by being able to network in an increasingly modern and global community.

Implementing dual language education would not only be in the interest of students but would also benefit the majority of the state's residents. The official language of California is English, yet 10 million Californians are native Spanish speakers. The government’s refusal to conduct business in languages other than English effectively excludes over 25 percent of Californians from the political process. Latinos represent 34 percent of the state’s population, yet they are only 21 percent of those most likely to vote. If California were to adopt a multilingual approach to government business, it would not be a first. States such as Hawaii, Alaska and New Mexico have recognized languages other than English, thus increasing the political participation of their residents. By recognizing the multiculturalism of California, political issues that disproportionately affect racial minorities would be given the attention they deserve.

California has set some impressive benchmarks to make up for the 18-year moratorium on multilingual education. In 2011, it was the first state to adopt the Seal of Biliteracy for graduating high school seniors who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages. In 2018, the California Department of Education issued the Global California 2030 report which sets goals such as tripling the number of high school students that graduate with a Seal of Biliteracy and quadrupling the number of dual immersion schools by 2030.

With these goals in mind, the state seems to be embracing a more global California. However, it is important that our lawmakers are held accountable and that this growing progress is not suppressed again by the English-only movement. The United States does not have an official language, but English has always been seen as the de facto language. In the 1950s, legislation was introduced that required immigrants to demonstrate English reading and writing skills in order to earn naturalization. This change was made not because English was dying out as the main language in America but rather to exclude and alienate certain immigrants from coming to the United States. This anti-immigrant sentiment is still very present today. For example, in 2018, a candidate for Secretary of State of Arizona suggested that the government stop providing ballots in Spanish, Apache and Navajo.

Being the fifth-largest economy in the world, California is in a unique position to be a leader in the fight for a more global and interconnected community. It is our responsibility as Californians to ensure that the state does not become engulfed by the English-only movement as it did 20 years ago. Rather, we have the opportunity to set an example of what it means to live by quintessential American values, starting with our education system.