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ESL vs Bilingual Education: Arguments For and Against

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

ESL and bilingual education are two different ways to help school-age children who have immigrated to an English-speaking country. The question of which of the two is more helpful has been filled with controversy for decades.

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    Main Difference

    The main difference between ESL and bilingual education is the language of instruction. In an ESL class, students are taught purely in English, with their second language relegated to recess discussions. In a bilingual education class, the teacher gives instruction in the students’ native language.

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    Language Proficiency and General Knowledge

    Proponents of ESL instruction worry that bilingual education may sacrifice knowledge of English for knowledge of a second language. They maintain that the best way for students to become proficient in English is to become immersed in the English language in an ESL classroom. In their opinions, students in a bilingual classroom will be conversing in English for less of the day, and their English language abilities will therefore suffer.

    Proponents of bilingual education maintain that the English abilities of students in a bilingual classroom are enhanced because they learn to translate between the two languages more easily. They also point out that students will be able to understand the other subjects that are being taught in the classroom, whereas students in an ESL classroom are often unable to comprehend even the most basic of lessons for a long period of time.

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    Emotional Effects

    Proponents of bilingual education believe that students who are thrown into an English-speaking classroom just days after arriving in America will be emotionally insecure. This insecurity can impact them both academically and socially, and they may never recover from the confusion. Placing them in a bilingual classroom enables them to understand the majority of their lessons, and hearing their first language keeps them secure emotionally.

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    Cultural Impact

    Proponents of ESL instruction criticize bilingual education as preventing assimilation into American culture. They say that students in a bilingual classroom are all of one culture, whereas students in an ESL classroom represent all of the different cultures within the United States. Therefore, they believe that students in an ESL setting will learn American culture more quickly and become comfortable with their American peers.

    Some proponents of bilingual education believe that this issue is secondary to the students’ emotional needs. Others go so far as to say that it is more important for students to develop their own culture and be secure in their backgrounds and nationalities than it is to develop a purely American mindset.

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    Other Differences

    The cost of setting up a bilingual classroom is higher than setting up an ESL classroom. In addition, there have to be enough students who speak the same language in order to fill up a bilingual classroom, whereas ESL classrooms can include speakers of several different languages.

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    What is your opinion?

    Let us know how you feel about this issue- and if you have been taught in either way, how you think it affected you, and if you think another method would have helped the learning process.

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