Dozens of dialects, English the goal
By Megan Tench, Boston Globe Staff, 10/31/2002
ast week, five new students from Africa showed up at English High School in
Jamaica Plain. None of them
They were sent over from another Boston high school because ''the teachers at
the other schools don't know what to
do with them,'' said Francisco Ruiz, English High's director of bilingual
education. ''When teachers don't know how to
teach them, they don't survive.''
The bilingual education debate focuses on Spanish-speaking students, who make up
two-thirds of the state's bilingual
student population. But Boston, like other districts, faces a more complex
challenge: teaching English to students who
speak dozens of native languages - in Boston's case, 42.
Statewide, 128,219 students have native languages that range from Portuguese and
Chinese to Khaikha Mongolian,
Ibo, and Hindi.
The new students at English High, for example, come from Sierra Leone, Guinea,
and Senegal, speaking languages
that mix English, French, and African dialects. At English, the students will be
placed in a multilingual, sheltered
immersion class with Middle Eastern, Russian, Ethiopian, and Albanian students.
Claudia Bell, a 27-year bilingual education teacher, runs a multilingual class
at English High that includes students
from different countries who are preparing to be mainstreamed into regular
She says it is important for students to express themselves in their native
tongues as they grow confident using
English. ''We want them to have the skills to compete and to think critically,''
Bell said. ''English is the tool to get them
there, but we have much greater hopes for them other than just knowing English
Yesterday, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and city councilors joined to oppose
Question 2, which seeks to replace
bilingual education programs with English immersion. ''Please don't be duped by
somebody coming here from
California,'' Menino said, referring to Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who
is sponsoring Tuesday's ballot initiative.
''Immersion doesn't work.''
Bell and Ruiz also oppose Question 2. If the initiative passes, students may
have to get waivers that would be allowed
for those 10 and older in order to continue with bilingual education.
''I don't believe in `sink or swim.' Bilingual education is much more
complicated than that,'' said Ruiz, noting that
some students from war-torn or poor countries arrive with little academic
preparation and can struggle more to learn
English, as opposed to European students who arrive with a better academic
Russian immigrant Elena Shpilevoy, however, learned firsthand about taking the
plunge to learn English when her
family arrived in Massachusetts and she became a Sharon Middle School
''I had no choice. I had no one to help me, or translate for me, so I was put
right into regular classes with
English-speaking students,'' said Shpilevoy, 17. ''During the classes some of my
teachers, like my literacy teacher,
would draw pictures on flashcards matching them with words. And that's how I
learned English, by writing things down
and constantly hearing words said.''
It was difficult and isolating, she said, but she learned English.
''It took me half a year to get comfortable with the fact that I was in
different classes in a different country,'' Shpilevoy
said. ''By eighth grade I could understand what was spoken in the classes, and
communicate with teachers. In the
ninth grade I started making friends.''
She is now an honors student at Sharon High School, trying to strengthen her
verbal skills to earn a better SAT score.
Her parents also decided to learn English; all three are taking classes at Ted's
English School in Stoughton, which
uses the immersion approach.
''If I can teach English to any beginner with any native language, then any
other good teacher can do it,'' said Ted
Coine, who runs the school and supports Question 2.
''Yes, it's going to be difficult for the student at first, but by keeping kids
in a structured class, they'll learn English
quickly,'' he said. ''Under proper conditions, a year is a long time to learn a
Also yesterday, James Carlin, former head of the Massachusetts Board of Higher
Education, announced his
endorsement of Question 2. ''I'm very heartened that the voters of Massachusetts
are now finally at the verge of
ending this failed educational experiment,'' Carlin said.
Marcelos Suarez-Orozco is a researcher who opposes Question 2, but acknowledges
that bilingual education programs
have not necessarily fulfilled their promise to teach students English.
Suarez-Orozco is director of the Harvard University Immigration Project, a
five-year study that tracked the progress of
400 immigrant students in the United States, including some in Boston and San
The research is ongoing, but partial results show 90 percent of families wanted
their children to learn English, calling
into question whether bilingual education programs have succeeded, Suarez-Orozco
''Bilingual education advocates need to keep in mind that immigrant parents want
their children to learn English,''
Suarez-Orozco said. ''They understand the importance of learning English.''
At the same time, Suarez-Orozco believes immersion offers a quick solution to a
complex issue. ''Those who claim
that immigrants are not learning English are ignorant,'' he said. ''Immigrant
children today are learning English
probably better than ever before in our country. But to get the kind of English
you want your children to have is going
to take longer than a year.''
In addition, Suarez-Orozco found that a great number of parents also want their
children to retain their native
language, including 83 percent of Chinese immigrants, 80 percent of immigrants
from the Dominican Republic, 85
percent of Central American immigrants, 70 percent of Haitian immigrants, and 95
percent of Mexican immigrants.
Stoughton parent Anna Maria Coghi is proud that her daughter has learned English
quickly, yet fearful that Bianca, 4,
may never speak Portuguese.
Arriving from Brazil a year ago, Bianca was immersed in English at her
preschool. ''I was nervous. I sat myself by the
telephone waiting for them to call and tell me `to rescue Bianca, she can't
understand anything we say,''' Coghi said.
But no one called.
Now Bianca ''speaks English as an American,'' her mother said. ''I try to learn
from her - she's so proper, so American.''
Still, Coghi added: ''She won't have any problem adjusting in the country, but
on the other hand we do have relatives
in Brazil. I want her to be able to communicate with them. I want to do my best
to keep her speaking Portuguese at
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 10/31/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.