Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/276/oped/English_101+.shtml

English 101

By Jeff Jacoby, 10/3/2002

F I WERE a Hispanic American, I would feel humiliated every time an
automated telephone answering system prompted me to press 1 for English,
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
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. I
would realize that no one assumes that German-, Arab-, or Vietnamese-Americans
are unable to communicate in English. I don't know which would depress me more:
the knowledge that my fellow citizens feel obliged to condescend to Hispanics or
my sense that so many Hispanics prefer it that way.

That's how I would feel if I were Hispanic. In fact, I am the son of a Jewish refugee
from Czechoslovakia who immigrated to America in 1948. The only English he
knew were the words he 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; on a third night he attended another English class at the Jewish
community center. To practice, 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.) Not learning English
was not an option. My father had to acquire the common American tongue. His life
has been better for it.

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.''

Porter's bona fides 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 cochairman 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
one.

The enemies of English immersion will say anything to discredit those who want
reform. At a rally at the Massachusetts State House this week, Question 2 was
denounced 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.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 10/3/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

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