July 6, 2007


Turn Off Spanish TV to Fast-Track Leaning English?

by Greg Alabado

When California Governor Arnold Schwar-zenegger was asked what could be done to help Latino students pass the required high school exit exams during an interview, he forewarned the audience that he knew his answer was politically incorrect and could get him into trouble. His response to the question was simply for Latino students to just turn off the Spanish television set.

The interview was conducted during the recent convention of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Obviously, his answer was not the kind many Latinos expected, especially the media members in attendance. At the same interview session, the Terminator added that immigrants should also avoid Spanish-language newspapers, books, and radio completely in order to accelerate their learning the English language.

The governor told the audience that when he first arrived in this country, he hardly spoke German and thus learned English by total immersion. Of course, there weren’t very many opportunities for him to speak his native language considering there are no large concentrations of German-speaking people in the country.

While at Santa Monica City College, he was advised to totally immerse himself in English media. With no German television he could watch, or German newspapers he could read, he claimed in two years time he could understand the news and was able to get by in school.

The governor’s statement regarding his stand on the method of acquiring English fluency was supported by many including San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican presidential wannabe. I am sure the Minutemen and other conservative groups welcome this kind of governatorial buzz words which could also be used as fodder by anti-Latino groups to serve their own purpose.

Learning English as a second language is not easy especially for a young, newly-arrived immigrant. But one man’s experience in language learning cannot be applied to a whole community as large as the Latino community. To cut off these young people from a media that is familiar to them has the effect of depriving them of their means of receiving information relative to their culture, ethnic heritage, and other vital information to fully function in society. On the other hand, I suspect this wasn’t what the governor really meant, nor anticipated for no one in their right mind would really like to see this happen.

The governor made reference to English immersion as one sure way to quickly learn English. If he meant English immersion program in a school setting, this is entirely different from just shutting off Spanish TV and staying away from Spanish media altogether. Data results from English immersion prove that one can master English without giving up watching ethnic and cultural programs on TV.

There is no question that English fluency can be a ticket to success for the betterment of a person’s quality of life. For many years, Latino high school graduates have had difficulty passing college admission tests. Even after having been accepted to college, many had to take remedial courses in order to move on to basic general education classes. And the reasons were for lack of college preparation while in high school caused by their inability to keep up with their non-Latino peers.

Proposition 227, a California initiative, virtually eliminated bilingual education was passed by California voters in 1998. The passage of the initiative brought to light a story of one school superintendent who opposed the measure but in the end became a convert of English immersion classes.

Ken Noonan, Superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District, has been with the District for ten years. He was a teacher, an administrator of bilingual education and served as the founding president of the California Association of Bilingual Educators. A member of the California Board of Education, Noonan was elected president of the board early this year.

He had been a fervent supporter of teaching children to initially read, write, speak, and learn in their own language, with gradual transition to English. By his own admission, Noonan campaigned against the passage of Proposition 227 which mandates that students be taught “English in English.”

However, when the initiative passed, he made a commitment to implement it although he and most of the district’s bilingual teachers were skeptical that English immersion would work.

In the article “English Immersion: A Convert Speaks Out” published in “Principal” magazine of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, Noonan shared his experiences when Proposition 227 was first implemented in his district.

Noonan noted his “skepticism grew as teachers described the difficulties of English immersion in the first few months of the new school year. But by midyear, teachers were asking me to visit their classrooms to see for myself what was happening. Teachers at various grade levels spoke with pride—and some astonishment—at how well their students were progressing with instruction provided almost entirely in English. Second graders who were newcomers to this country not only could read in English, but were able to describe to me—in English—what they had read. Mixed classes of Spanish and English speakers seemed to be most successful, but even classes where most students were Spanish speakers were showing great progress. I was hopeful, but still a little skeptical.

“After the first year of English immersion, all our students in grades 2 through 11 took the state-mandated SAT-9 exam—in English. Their test scores were dramatically different from those of the prior year, when second-grade English learners in bilingual classes scored at the 13th percentile. But after a year in the immersion program, a similar group of second-grade English learners scored at the 23rd percentile. The following year, after experiencing English immersion in both first and second grades, the second graders’ reading scores jumped to the 32nd percentile. In math, their scores went from the 27th percentile to the 44th percentile. Best of all, in the 2000-2001 school year, we were able to declare nearly 1,000 former English learners to be “Fluent English Proficient.”

“Now, after three years of academic gains, I’ve had to admit that this is no fluke. While we need more time to analyze test data, I now believe that English immersion works well and that it helps students to learn English far more quickly and effectively than I ever thought possible…

…“For some, the first few months are difficult. But within a short period of time the tears of frustration are gone. When I speak to children on the playground, their faces light up when they can understand and respond in English. Our immigrant Latino parents want their children to know English and feel that we are preparing their children for success.

“I still believe that some bilingual programs can work. But now I know from experience that English immersion, administered with determination, commitment, and good training, is even better. There is no evidence that children lose their home language or home culture simply by being in an English immersion program at school. After all, most of these children return home to talk to their parents in Spanish or a language other than English. Rather, the English immersion approach creates a group of students who are bilingual, but who develop sufficient English skills early enough to be successful in school.”

Noonan also confessed in his article that even before Proposition 227, he was troubled by the lack of timely movement of many bilingual students in terms of English fluency. He cited, as an example, a young student who came to his District speaking only Tagalog, a Philippine dialect, when he was placed in a bilingual program. At the end of the year, he could speak Spanish, but not English, according to Noonan.

From my own personal perspective, English immersion in school is a win-win situation in developing English fluency. It serves as the equalizer in helping level the playing field for all students, regardless of their native language, in pursuing their career choice and finding their niche in the American work place and society in general.

Greg Alabado writes a column for the San Diego “Philippines & Asian Report.” E mail: GregAlabado@cox.net

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