My mother, a gifted storyteller, nourished a love of language in all her children. Even before we began school, she would read to us from the Spanish translations of such classic works as Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Mexican music from the radio filled our house in Los Angeles, and my mother taught us to hear the words as well as the melody. Books in Spanish and Spanish-language newspapers filled our home, and she corrected the Spanish we used in writing letters to our family in Chihuahua.
With the wisdom of a young mother, she realized that the foundation of a good education is a love of language. Knowing the importance of English in this country, she made sure we would learn it. Her contribution to that end was to give us a love for her speech, the language she knew best.
Though she studied English along with us, she had the good sense to realize that literacy is a skill that crosses language barriers, and she realized that by enriching our minds with literacy in one language, we’d be better prepared for a second. If more politicians had as much good sense, our schools would be better off.
Perhaps inevitably, her two sons both became bilingual and both translated their love of language into careers as English teachers. Those of us who teach language minority students in our nation’s public schools see the evidence for inter-language literacy again and again: Students who are strong readers in their native language invariably become strong readers in English.
Unfortunately, in the heat of ideological battles, voters sometimes lose their common sense. Who would have thought that Arizonans—a people who have come to respect and admire the culture of our native tribes—would vote for a law, Proposition 203, that is so harmful to our remaining native languages? Or that we would abandon the concept of local control of schools because we fear that the growing use of Spanish in our communities will somehow threaten English?
As Americans, we should know our own language better. Beautifully flexible and seductive in its power, nothing threatens English. It is the language of science, business, the Internet, popular culture, and diplomacy. Anyone who feels a desperate urge to protect English is badly underestimating its strength. I have spent my career helping students to discover the splendor of the English language and the richness of its literature. I’ve yet to meet any group of parents who do not want English for their children.
Parents seeking bilingual education feel exactly the same way. They want English. The only difference is that, like my mother, they want Spanish for their children, too. They are wise enough to see the value of bilingualism.
Yes, Spanish has indeed become our second language, a language with its own power and beauty. It is everywhere: in bookstores, banking machines, phone messages, advertisements, and media of all types. It gives lyrical (and sometimes perplexing) names to our streets and towns, our mountains, valleys, and rivers. It flavors our foods, colors our music, deepens our ties to the land. Those who interpret Spanish as a threat rather than a marvelous resource are the poorer for it.
Sadly, their fear now impoverishes our system of education. Spanish became a convenient scapegoat, blamed for the educational struggles of the children of immigrants. It wasn’t the fact that 76 percent of all such children received English-only instruction. It wasn’t the disparity of funding between wealthy school districts and poor ones. It wasn’t the lack of teacher training on language-acquisition strategies.
No, Spanish was the problem. If we could rid our schools of Spanish, then all children would acquire English “in a period not normally intended to exceed one year.”
That was the promise. The reality turned out to be something very different. California launched its experiment with immersion seven years ago. In the first few years after their immersion programs began, school officials bragged about test-score improvements. They insisted that immersion programs were working, and that children were acquiring English with amazing speed. (Not surprisingly, Arizona’s current Superintendent of Public Instruction is now doing much the same thing.) Then, slowly, the exuberant reports from California began to fade away. The latest report barely made the news. What happened?
This past February, California’s legislative analysts released a study based on 2.6 million test results, tracking the length of time that it took for students from various language backgrounds to become proficient in English. The students who learned English most quickly were from an Asian-American group, Mandarin speakers, averaging 3.4 years. The ones who took longest were from another Asian-American group, Hmong speakers, averaging 7.1 years.
The results were exactly what specialists in language acquisition had been saying all along. “English in one year” is a fantasy; literacy in two languages is a treasure.
My mom could have told them that.