Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / December 17, 1997 / 18 Kislev, 5758
Opening a Window of Opportunity
THANKS TO A SILICON VALLEY BUSINESSMAN, Hispanic kids in California may soon have an opportunity that has been denied them for more than two decades by Hispanic leaders and education bureaucrats: the right to learn English.
California is home to the country's largest Hispanic population, with some 1.3 million children who enter school speaking Spanish. For two decades, these children have been guinea pigs in an education experiment gone awry. Taught primarily in Spanish in their early school years, many Hispanic youngsters lag behind their peers and are more likely than other children, including blacks and other immigrants, to drop out of school before graduating.
Ron Unz wants to change that, and he has invested a small fortune of his own money to do so. Unz is the author of a proposed initiative on teaching English to non-English speaking children, which could be voted on in California next June once the attorney general's office determines the requisite number of qualified voters have signed petitions placing it on the ballot. The measure would change the existing system, which emphasizes Spanish instruction for Hispanic children for three to seven years. In place of the current system, Unz's initiative mandates a year of intensive English instruction, often called "sheltered English" because the technique uses simple words and phrases appropriate to new learners. It also advocates early transition to mainstream classes.
Under the Unz initiative, parents could opt for bilingual instruction -- but only by requesting it. This would dramatically alter the current placement process, which operates in reverse. Like most states, California now automatically assigns most non-English-speaking Hispanic students to bilingual classes, and their parents must put up quite a fuss if they want them removed. (By contrast, most school districts place non-English-speaking children from other ethnic groups into English-intensive programs.)
As few as 6 percent of the children in California's bilingual programs manage to leave the program for regular classes each year, by design. In fact, most bilingual education advocates openly acknowledge that they don't believe children can learn a second language until they have learned to read in their first language -- which is why bilingual educators often keep Hispanic children who can already speak English in a Spanish-based program.
Where do bilingual educators get these strange ideas? Primarily, from two influential researchers: Stephen Krashen and James Cummins are the chief gurus of the bilingual education movement. According to Krashen, Cummins and their disciples, you can't learn a second language well enough to succeed in it academically until you've learned to read and write in your first language.
The problem with Krashen and Cummins' theories is that they defy not only common sense and a 200-year history of language assimilation in the United States, but they fly in the face of virtually all current research on how humans acquire language.
Exciting new research on the human brain confirms what most of us have already observed: Young children more quickly adapt to learning new languages than older persons do. We now know why. Although humans have an innate capacity for language, early exposure to the sounds, rhythms, syntax and grammar of language helps form the circuits in the brain responsible for mastery of a given language.
All infants can hear the hundreds of separate sounds or phonemes that make up the world's many thousands of languages until they are about 10 months old; then, they lose the ability to distinguish the sounds that aren't present in the language they hear spoken by those around them, which is why it is so difficult to teach an English-speaking person to make the unusual clicking sound made in the Xhosa language or a Japanese speaking person to distinguish the difference between the English "l" and "r" sounds.
Language repetition actually lays down neural pathways, physically altering the brain. The same is true for syntax and grammar, rules that are absolutely crucial to becoming fluent in a language. Brain research now suggests that the optimum window of opportunity for establishing these neurological connections may begin to close as early as 5 or 6 years of age.
If Ron Unz's initiative wins in California, thousands of Hispanic children may actually get to take advantage of that window of opportunity to learn English when their young brains can best benefit from it. As it is now, bilingual education ideologues deprive these youngsters of early exposure to the sounds, syntax and grammar that will largely determine their future education, earnings and success in this country. If Unz succeeds in California, maybe other states will muster the courage to replace largely ideological bilingual programs with alternatives based on sound brain research.