Immersion best way to learn English
By Jeff Jacoby
If 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 Espaņol. It would mortify me to click on a government Web site and find a
to the site's elaborate Spanish-language section.
If I were Hispanic, I would be ashamed that so many American institutions take
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 scores of others he met after
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
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
for which I am deeply grateful. My father was forced to learn English; it was
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
(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"
classes for years, the proposed measures 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
By now, the evidence of bilingual's failure is so voluminous that only
and the willfully blind can claim that it is superior to early immersion in
"The accumulated research of the past 30 years reveals almost no justification
teaching children in their native languages to help them learn either English or
subjects," wrote Rosalie Pedalino Porter in The Atlantic Monthly.
"Self-esteem is not higher among limited-English students who are taught in
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, Mass., and later became the director of bilingual
In 2000, she was named co-chairman of the state's 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
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
* Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe, P.O. Box 2378,
Dorchester, MA 02107-2378; e-mail: