March 30, 2001

Commentary

Yes to English; No to Español?

By Domenico Maceri

The virtual elimination of bilingual education in California in 1998 and in Arizona in 2000 through the initiative process has sparked interest in similar measures in other states. New York, Texas, Colorado, and Massachusetts are considering following suit encouraged by the "success" of the immersion approach. In both California and Arizona voters approved the anti-bilingual education measures by 2 to 1 margins. Unfortunately, voters made their choices based on their superficial understanding that immersion means English and bilingual education means Spanish. English won.

Many voters feel that English is the language of the land and bilingual education encourages a Canada-style friction between linguistic groups. Canada sometimes seems on the verge of splitting itself into two countries, and many Americans fear that the same thing could happen in the U. S.

The fear of bilingualism is also fueled by the fact that many American companies prefer bilingual employees. Americans don't want to have to learn a new language to be able to get a job. Fear of bilingualism is also obvious in the laws passed by more than twenty American states declaring English the official language.

Voters also dislike bilingual education because it does not seem to have produced "results." Latinos still don't do as well as Anglos in educational achievement as measured by standardized tests. Bilingual education, voters assure, must be to blame.

The American media fuels this prejudice. Last year a number of newspapers circulated an article by the New York Times which stated that the immersion program in Oceanside, California, worked wonders. Test scores of Latino students went up considerably. It made for extensive headlines. What the article did not reveal is that scores went up for all California's children, including schools that retained some form of bilingual education.

The "hidden" facts about the bilingual education don't seem to penetrate the voters' minds. The fact that bilingual education teaches all subjects, including English, is not clearly visible. The fact that knowing just the English language will not do much for one's employment prospects does not seem to register. The superiority of English seems to be paramount in voters' minds.

The zeal for the English language prevents voters from seeing that when bilingual education is implemented properly, it works. Research done by George Mason University and the National Research Council confirms this view. A study by the Los Angeles Unified School District demonstrated that students in bilingual education programs did better in reading and writing than those who were taught in English from the beginning.

Certainly the old "sink or swim" approach did not work. In the past, immigrant children were often classified as unintelligent because they could not compete with native-born students. In 1921 fifty percent of the special education students in New York City were Italian immigrants. Why such a high rate? They were tested in English, a language they did not know very well. Their low scores branded them as less intelligent.

Bilingual education tries to correct the problem of the "sink or swim" approach by seeing the intelligence of immigrant kids. Unfortunately, voters are reluctant to give it a chance. Even at the height of its implementation in California only 30% of the kids who needed bilingual education ever got it. And those who were involved in it often had teachers who were not bilingual because there was always a huge shortage of qualified personnel. You can't blame a program for not succeeding when it has not been implemented.

Clearly, the lack of success of Latinos in school cannot be attributed to bilingual education. The most obvious "culprit" is economics. Latinos, for the most part, like other immigrants before them, are poor. Their kids often go to schools which lack basic resources-qualified teachers, buildings, books, etc. Funding for American schools is primarily a local matter which is linked to local taxes. The wealthier the neighborhood, the higher the school's budget. And for those areas of the country where school funding is primarily a state matter, "rich" neighborhoods still get more money than poor ones.

It should be the opposite, of course, because kids don't get all their education at school. Much of what kids learn begins at home and rich kids have educational opportunities in the home that poor kids lack. And if kids don't know English when they start school, they have another challenge to overcome. Poverty and lack of language skills conspire against Latino and other immigrant children. These challenges require compensatory education, and bilingual education, though not a panacea, tries to level the playing field between immigrant and native-born kids.

The anti-bilingual education proposals have had and will continue to have negative effects on the education of Latinos. The silver lining in this matter is that Latinos have easily figured out that these proposals are an attack on them. Anti-bilingual education propositions or English-only laws do not benefit anyone, particularly Latino children. However, they will inspire Latino parents to become U. S. citizens at a faster rate than in the past and become politically engaged. Latinos have already realized that as a group they can be a potent force to be reckoned with and thus become able to defend their children.

Domenico Maceri (dmaceri@aol.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers and some have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

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