What’s the Fuss?

Are the debates over bilingual education grounded in what is educationally best for children — or over issues of assimilation versus cultural pride?

By Raul Yzaguirre

Language is both a right and a powerful national resource.

Although I have been an observer of and a participant in the debate over bilingual education for years, it took me a long time to understand why there is so much passion and so little rational discussion on this issue. What I realized is that while I and other proponents of bilingual education were talking about education, others were really talking about language policy.

While education philosophy is hardly emotion-free, language policy and practice affects us in a very personal way. It gets at the core of the kind of society we want or are likely to have.

The debate over language has at least three aspects: language as a “problem,” language as a right, and language as a resource and/or a reality.

For many years, educators saw language — or rather any language other than English as the primary or only language spoken by children attending school— as a problem.

I use the term “problem” deliberately. It was not simply a question of the practicality of adding English to whatever language the child brought to the class to assure a common means of communication. Rather, it was a question of instilling in immigrant children, so far as it can be done, the objective of “absolute forget-fulness of all obligations, or connections with other countries because of descent or birth,” as the superintendent of schools in New York City noted in 1918.

Therefore, any language other than English was neither positive nor benign. It was a “problem” to be washed away, and led to a process which obliterated that other language because it represent- ed a threat to the nation, or at least, to those who did not understand that language. And if the child failed to keep up with his or her peers, so be it; there were always factory and field jobs that did not require literacy but only the ability to understand the verbal commands of their bosses.

There are many ethnic Americans who lament that their ancestors were put through this pressure cooker that passes for a melting pot and that deprived them of their heritage. More vocal and more prominent, however, are Americans, particularly some white ethnic Americans, who are incensed with the idea of language as a “right,” particularly if the notion is that this right should be paid for by their taxes.

How many times have we heard, “My grandfather came to America not know- ing a word of English and nobody helped him,” or, “We were taught to learn English and nothing but English was spoken in front of us.” Even some Hispanics, who had been forced to give up some of their birth language and heritage, became the staunchest supporters of this notion. Indeed, “contrarians” like the commentators Richard Rodriguez and Linda Chavez have been given far more publicity and coverage than mainstream Latino leaders for embracing this “philosophy.”

Mr. Rodriguez once went so far as to argue that it is great for non-Latinos to learn and speak Spanish but not Hispanics.

It is precisely folks who equate bilingual education with an effort to preserve, or worse, demand the right to, their own language that are most rabidly against bilingual education. Language as a right, or more precisely a minority language as a right, conjures up images of a Quebec- style divisiveness and the possible Balkanization of the country.

Even if the analogy does not apply, too many of us believe that it does. After talking to dozens of Canadians familiar with the Quebec separatist movement, I have yet to find one who believes that Hispanics in the United States are remotely like French-speaking Quebecers. For one thing, the Francophone separatists and the hard-line Anglo opponents of French-language rights are both opposed to bilingual education. It is the “One Canada” leadership that promotes bilingualism in the name of unity. But how often do you hear about countries where people speak different languages and enjoy peace and prosperity, as is the case in Switzerland and other countries? Peace and comity do not make the evening news.


Which brings us to a third way of understanding language: language as a powerful national resource.

There exists an enormous contradiction in this country. On the one hand, the National Governors’ Association unanimously agreed last year that the United States should make foreign-language acquisition a priority in our schools, given the fact that we are the industrialized world’s most linguistically ignorant nation. On the other hand, as a recent Washington Post headline summed it up: “California Rejection a Big Blow to Bilingualism.” I believe this contradiction exists because the debate over bilingualism has been about language policy and not about education.

Let me be clear: I believe learning English is a must for every American. If anyone doubts my word, I would ask them to visit any of the 100 or so National Council of La Raza affiliates that provide English-language training to tens of thou- sands of Latinos each year. But it is equally unconscionable to allow the de- bate over bilingual education to lead our country into wasting such a valuable natural resource as a population that already speaks a multitude of languages. It is also wrong not to use the best method available to teach LEP children English, which research shows is bilingual education.

Raul Yzaguirre is the president of the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization. Education policy analyst Raul Gonzalez assisted in the preparation of this essay. The above is condensed from a commentary that appeared Aug. 5, 1998 in Education Week. Reprinted with permission.