Knowing Two Languages Is An Asset And A National Treasure, Not A Liability

Educator Calls For A Bilingual Nation
by Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez
March 1, 2000

For the past several decades, this country has been subjected to Orwellian-type politics where nearly everything has been projected as the opposite of what it really is. The best example of this inverted form of thinking can be found in the field of education, where leaders of a dumb-down (English-only) movement have seemingly managed to convince the majority of Americans that it is better to be monolingual than bilingual.

Unable to use sound pedagogical arguments, these same leaders -- most of whom are not educators -- have historically resorted to patriotism to advance their reasoning, postulating that knowing less means actually knowing more. Somehow that's supposed to equal being more patriotic.

However, we recently heard Josephine Tinajero, assistant dean of the School of Education at the University of Texas at El Paso, put forth the most cogent and enlightening arguments in defense of bilingual education we've ever heard.

Speaking before thousands at the annual National Association of Bilingual Educators, Tinajero, who is its president, stated that as a society we are now moving away from an era of mediocrity to an era of excellence. She said that when NABE was founded in 1975, the members wanted equity. "Today, in addition to equity, we insist on excellence and bilingualism for all children. We insist on preparing every single child in America to meet world standards."

Who can argue with that goal, except perhaps those who would spend more money on costly weapons of mass destruction?

Her view of excellence includes an interdependent world. "A world of this sort demands linguistic, cultural, technological and socio-psychological preparation. Our schools must teach the languages of the world and the power of those languages along with world geography, world history and economics."

Her vision includes children being multilingual and literate in cyber-languages. Corporate America, she noted, believes that model employees should have knowledge of at least two languages.

She challenged schools to stop viewing children who are learning English for the first time as being language-deficient. "Being bilingual, multilingual is an enormous asset, an intellectual accomplishment. And it should be fostered as a national treasure."

She noted that in San Antonio, the entire community -- the chamber of commerce, the school districts, the colleges and universities -- is promoting bilingualism. "If bilingualism is good for the economy in San Antonio, it most definitely can be good for the economy in El Paso, New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Houston."

In defense of bilingual education, she stated, "Let's stop making apologies for what we know works, and focus on making it more accessible to all kids."

She said that part of accomplishing that goal is dispelling myths about what bilingual education is. "Bilingual education is not for children with a deficiency," she said. "It's not for children with learning problems.

It's not a program for those poor little kids who can't speak English. It is instruction in two or more languages, one of which is English. Bilingual education serves to promote high standards of thinking and knowledge throughout all of the curriculum. It is for the gifted and talented. It is also for children whose first language is English."

Only in this country is being monolingual considered educational excellence. Tinajero continued: "Most countries define educational excellence as mastery of the national language, mastery of academic content
and mastery of a second, third or even a fourth language. The word 'transition' is not part of their vocabulary."

Transition refers to the method of "mainstreaming" children out of "bilingual education" as fast as possible. That's the worst possible method, she said. Its antithesis can be seen at the Alicia Chacon International School in the Ysleta District in El Paso. There, educational excellence is defined as English acquisition, mastery of academic content, and mastery of a second and third language for all children. The model is so successful that the district is expanding it to the rest of its K-12 schools.

"Any visionary education policy will have bilingual education as a centerpiece," she stated. That's a far cry from the time when noneducators, particularly politicians, demanded that children keep their bilingualism at home. Perhaps that message resonated in the last century, but not this one.

As Tinajero said: "Simply saying that it's up to parents to teach children their native language and schools to teach English is to make mockery both of a humanistic education and the education of a citizen who is expected to work by national design in a global environment."

A bilingual nation? Sounds like a better idea for this century.