by José Cárdenas, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 1993

Dr. Jose CardenasIn casual conversations, as well as in formal presentations, persons who are familiar with my twenty-five years of advocacy for bilingual education frequently ask me about the impact of bilingual education programs. “How successful has bilingual education been?” I am always tempted to respond, “I don’t know. We have never tried it.”

I am reluctant to use this response because in general bilingual programs have been very successful. But success has been severely limited by constraints in the implementation of the programs.

I see nothing wrong with the rationale of bilingual education, nor do I have any reservations about the soundness of the pedagogy. Unfortunately, as a program commonly externally imposed it has not received general acceptance by the education community. Bilingual programs are often reluctantly implemented, inadequately staffed, limited in resources and poorly administered.

The success of bilingual programs in this country would soar if attention were paid to problems in implementation. The following article describes ten of the most common problems found in bilingual education programs.

In its simplest form bilingual education is the use of two languages. In a more sophisticated context, such as an educational response to the problems of limited English proficient students in American schools, bilingual education is the use of the native language for instructional purposes while English is being learned as a second language.

Pedagogues tend to make the rationale of bilingual education unnecessarily complicated. Interrupting and delaying cognitive development and the acquisition of skills and knowledge until a new language is acquired is a waste of time and produces academic retardation and overagedness, which in turn produce under performance and a propensity for dropping out of school.

At periodic intervals I go out and buy a new suit. Invariably the new purchase has to be fitted and altered before it is delivered. It is unnecessary, undesirable and a waste of time for me to sit naked in my house for two or three weeks waiting for the new suit to be delivered. I continue going to work in my old clothes until such time as the new suit arrives. When it does arrive, I simple make the transition from my old suit to the new one, though I sometimes continue to use the old one for certain occasions.

I do not see the period of time in which I am waiting for my new suit to be delivered as the appropriate time to get my old suit dry cleaned, altered or repaired. Doing so would place me back in the house waiting for two suits with nothing to wear.

Using the old suit while waiting for the new one is neither unpatriotic nor divisive; it is simply practical. Contrary to pedagogical myths, wearing the old suit does not delay nor inhibit the delivery of the new one. The continued alternative use of the two suits presents no extensive dilemma, nor am I likely to become schizophrenic. I have developed sufficient judgment to determine which of the two suits to use in a specific social context.

In spite of almost twenty-five years of recent bilingual program implementation in the United States, the status of bilingual education is still unresolved. Though most studies of the impact of bilingual education indicate very positive findings, I am of the opinion that success is still constrained by limitations in program implementation. Having visited bilingual programs in many cities in a large number of states, and having continuous contact with bilingual education personnel throughout the country, I have observed many limitations of bilingual education programs which need to be addressed.

Lack of Language Development Opportunity

There exists an astounding relationship between language proficiency in general, and English language proficiency specifically, and language development activity in the classroom. As documented by research studies, students with the least oral language skills spend the most time in desk oriented, non-verbal instructional activity. The converse is also true, students with the most oral language skills spend the most time in verbal instructional activities.

Either in bilingual or monolingual programs, the most pressing need of limited English proficient children is language development. Since oral language development usually precedes written language development, written activity is relatively non-productive without the prerequisite oral language capability. In general, this need is not being met.

It is not unusual to visit a classroom with a large number of limited English proficient students in which there is a minimum of verbal communication. When asked what is the most pressing need of these students, teachers will invariably respond, “Lack of oral language development.”

Limited Use of the Native Language

A few years ago, Dr. William Bennett, then Secretary of the Department of Education, criticized bilingual education programs as programs which did not teach the English language, used the native language exclusively for instructional purposes, and had instructional content composed only of learning the culture of the native language. In an article I wrote, and in a personal confrontation, I challenged the Secretary to identify one classroom in any public school in any city of the country in which there was native language utilization without English language instruction. The Secretary stated that I had misinterpreted his statement, though I had a copy of it released by his office, but he failed to identify any such program.

I knew that he couldn’t, because I am certain that such a bilingual program does not exist. On the contrary, I could have similarly challenged the Secretary to identify a bilingual program in which the native language was being used extensively for instructional programs. In the infamous American Institute for Research study of bilingual education programs, more than half of the teachers with five or more years of experience as bilingual teachers indicated that they knew no language other than English. The shortage of bilingual teachers nationwide indicates that a large number of bilingual programs are staffed by monolingual teachers.

Premature Transition to English

Where bilingual programs actually use native language instruction, teachers are under tremendous pressures to make a premature transition into English language instruction or to exit the students from the bilingual program into regular English language classrooms.

Premature transitioning is forced by a shortage of bilingual teachers, opposition to bilingual education and early subject matter achievement testing in the English language. Extensive premature exiting from bilingual programs also results from the use of a student’s facility with the English language in a social context rather than English language facility in an academic context.

When asked, “How long should a student stay in a bilingual education program?” I invariably respond, “As long as necessary.” That is, as long as it takes to be assured that the student has sufficient English language mastery so that it is no longer a variable in the success/failure of basic skill and content material acquisition.

The length of time necessary in a bilingual program will vary from student to student, but the fact that English speaking children spend four or five years in English language acquisition in the home before facing academic tasks in school should be recognized.

Inadequacies of Instructional Materials

In spite of some investments into the development of bilingual instructional materials, there is still a marked shortage in the field. Early native language materials were usually obtained from foreign publishers. Though syntax and morphology were generally acceptable, the lexical characteristics and context of the materials were inappropriate, unfamiliar and confusing for the limited English proficient children raised in the U.S.

Textbook publishers have been reluctant to invest in the development of materials in any language other than English due to limited marketability. The same holds true for supplemental and reference materials. Aside from basic reading materials and basic arithmetic, very little is commercially available in support of bilingual education, especially for secondary students.

The lack of appropriate cultural representation in curriculum materials has also been a problem. Early publisher reaction to the need for such materials for use in bilingual and other multicultural programs left a lot to be desired. A common response was to use a little brown or black ink to give color to people in the pictures. This resulted in the typical minority family being made up of Father, Mother, Dick, Baby and their dog, Spot, with everyone including the dog having dark complexions.

Bilingual materials were prepared by an all White Anglo staff with a copy made available to a university foreign language professor for translation. I remember getting one such copy of a math workbook to be translated into Spanish in which the items for mathematical manipulation were creampuffs. One could conclude that there are dozens of Spanish translations for the word “creampuff,” though I am prone to argue that there is no translation for the word “creampuff.” Since the English version of the new curriculum was already complete, and the graphics already included the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of creampuffs, the inappropriateness of this pastry for translation resulted in a major disaster.

For the past twenty-five years, a significant part of a bilingual teacher’s time has been spent scrounging for appropriate instructional materials in addition to the normal hours teachers spend in instructional and other duties.

Editor’s Note: Part II of Dr. Cárdenas’ article, a continued discussion of current problems in bilingual education and the author’s conclusions, will appear in October’s IDRA Newsletter.

A nationally recognized education expert, Dr. José A. Cárdenas is founder and Director Emeritus of IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at

[©1993, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1993 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]