January 26, 2007

Push for official language would challenge bilingual schools

By Paul Kita
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - Bolstered by recent polling evidence, politicians and a pro-English action group are pushing for the adoption of English as the official U.S. language.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich spoke at a ProEnglish press conference Wednesday, focusing his criticisms on lax immigration standards and bilingual education.

“I think the federal government should finance a nationwide program, working with the states, so that anybody who is legally here who needs to be immersed in English has an opportunity to learn the language as rapidly as possible and have the best possible future,” Gingrich said.

Proposed legislation would require the federal government to conduct business in English but would not place restrictions on language in businesses.

Specifically, Gingrich said he recommended legislation requiring an English test as part of becoming a U.S. citizen, rescinding current law requiring the government to offer access to documents in multiple languages and the conversion of bilingual schools into “immersion centers.”

“Our 20 year experiment with bilingual education has been a disaster and we should focus on immersion in English,” Gringrich said. “Immigrant parents want their children to do better than they did back home - that’s a major reason for coming here ... and that inherently requires mastering English.”

Immersion centers would preserve the English language, said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish, by teaching core classes like math, science and history in English while requiring non-English speakers to take supplementary English courses. Bilingual schools introduce English gradually and teach students some subjects in their native languages for a time.

An immersion center would require students to practice more English than a bilingual school, McAlpin said, meaning they would perform better on English proficiency tests.

However, some critics claim immersion centers would promote a “sink or swim” learning environment.

“This doesn’t work for all children - especially those from poor communities coming from backgrounds with parents who are less educated,” said James Crawford, president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy.

With the current bilingual school system, Crawford said more people are learning English at a faster rate.

Crawford said the issue is less about education than politics.

“This is a mean-spirited effort to punish immigrants,” he said. “Every time there is a backlash against immigrants, we see this issue appear.”

Most students are already immersed in English, surrounded by the language in the world between home and school, said Christopher Loya, principal at Davis Bilingual Magnet School in Tucson, Ariz.

“The goal of dual-language education is teaching students to be bi-literary,” Loya said. “Bilingual programs are not anti-English, they’re English-plus.”

Loya said his school has not been directly affected by a proposition supported by more than 70 percent of voters last year making English Arizona’s official language.

Although Arizona’s Nogales Unified School District No. 1 switched to an English-immersion curriculum after the vote, Superintendent Guillermo Zamudio said he cannot compare test results to the district’s bilingual days because state education requirements have changed.

Sixty percent of Americans said Congress and the president are not doing enough to protect English’s role as the common, unifying language of the United States, according to data compiled by Zogby International.

“Anybody who comes here ought to make the crucible or the assimilation process to be an American,” said Arizona state Rep. Russell K. Pearce, R-Mesa, the chief proponent of the state’s ballot measure. “But that doesn’t mean they can’t maintain their own culture at home.”

Two Republican senators, Steve King, Iowa, and James Inhofe, Okla., plan to introduce legislation on the matter later this year.

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