Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2002 / 28 Tishrei, 5763
Learning English from Day 1
If I were a Hispanic American, I would feel humiliated every time an
automated telephone-answering system prompted me to press 1 for English,
or 2 for Spanish. I would wince every time an ATM machine invited me to
conduct my transaction en Espanol. It would mortify me to click on a
government web site -- www.WhiteHouse.gov, for example, or www.irs.gov
-- and find a link to the site's elaborate Spanish-language section.
If I were Hispanic, I would be ashamed that so many American
institutions take it for granted that people like me can't understand
English. I would notice that there were never any telephone prompts or
hyperlinks for Italian or Hindi or Japanese. It would be obvious to me
that no one assumes that German-, Arab-, or Vietnamese-Americans are
unable to communicate in English. Only Hispanics are taken for dullards
for whom the American national language is just too tough to master. I
don't know which would depress me more: the knowledge that my fellow
citizens feel obliged to condescend to Hispanics in this manner, or my
sense that so many Hispanics prefer it that way.
That's how I would feel if I were Hispanic. In fact, however, I am
the son of a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, who immigrated to
America in 1948. The only English he knew when he arrived were the
words he'd picked up on the boat coming over. But like millions of
immigrants before him, and like scores of others he met after settling
in Cleveland, he made learning English an urgent priority.
And so two nights a week, he took the bus to a public high school
that offered English classes for adults; on a third night he attended
another English class at the Jewish community center. To practice their
new language, my father and his friends formed a New Americans Club,
which organized Sunday outings during which everyone was expected to
speak English. His grammar isn't perfect and he never lost his accent,
but for the past half-century, English has been my father's primary
America in the '40s and '50s didn't make life easy for
non-English-speakers, a fact for which I am deeply grateful. My father
was forced to learn English; it was the prerequisite to American life.
I don't know that he would have been as diligent about getting on that
bus three nights a week if Cleveland's banks had provided
Slovak-speaking tellers or if government forms had been available in
Hungarian or if schools had routinely shunted the children of Jewish
immigrants into "bilingual" classes taught in Yiddish. (My father was
fluent in all three.) Fortunately, not learning English was not an
option; my father had to acquire the common American tongue. His life
has been better for it -- and so has mine.
What triggers these reflections is the debate over ballot measures
in Massachusetts and Colorado that would put an end to traditional
bilingual education. Instead of letting non-English-speaking children
languish in "transitional" bilingual classes for years, the proposed
measures -- Question 2 in Massachusetts, Amendment 31 in Colorado --
would require them to enter a one-year English-immersion program.
Similar ballot questions won handily in California in 1998 and Arizona
When bilingual education was first introduced, it was possible for
reasonable people to disagree about the most effective way to teach
English to children from non-English-speaking homes. By now, the
evidence of bilingual's failure is so voluminous that only ideologues
and the willfully blind can claim that it is superior to early immersion
"The accumulated research of the past 30 years reveals almost no
justification for teaching children in their native languages to help
them learn either English or other subjects," wrote Rosalie Pedalino
Porter in The Atlantic Monthly. "Self-esteem is not higher among
limited-English students who are taught in their native languages, and
stress is not higher among children who are introduced to English from
the first day of school -- though self-esteem and stress are the factors
most often cited by advocates of bilingual teaching."
Porter's bona fides on this topic are sterling: She used to teach
Spanish-language bilingual classes in Springfield and later became the
director of bilingual education in Newton. In 2000 she was named
co-chairman of the Massachusetts Bilingual Education Advisory Council.
She became an English-immersion advocate only after many years of
believing in the status quo. All across the country, there are
educators like Porter -- bilingual teachers and administrators who could
no longer go on denying the truth: Students learn English fastest when
they learn it from Day 1.
The enemies of English-immersion will say anything to discredit
those who press for reform. At a rally at the Massachusetts State House
this week, Question 2 was denounced by the president of the state
AFL-CIO as "hateful and spiteful;" Ron Unz, the California businessman
who has been the moving force behind these ballot measures, was compared
by the head of the Hispanic American Chamber of Commerce to a Nazi. The
thuggishness of such "arguments" says much about what the bilingual
industry has become and the lengths to which it will go to protect its
empire. If I were Hispanic, there is nothing I would want more than to
see that empire dismantled.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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