Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2002 / 28 Tishrei, 5763

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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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 --, for example, or -- 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 language.

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 in 2000.

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 in English.

"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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