made 'bilingual' a dirty word
North County Times (Escondido, CA)
October 13, 2005
By: RICHARD RIEHL
It's been said a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, someone
who speaks two languages is bilingual, and those who speak one language are
Although we often express our admiration and respect for those who
are multilingual, we have never made learning a second language a
priority in our public schools.
In fact, in California bilingualism has become a dirty word. This
year marks the seventh anniversary of the passage of Proposition 227. It
is now politically correct to refer to bilingual education as a
failure, ranking right up there with the teaching of reading by sight,
rather than phonics.
Nevertheless, educators continue to disagree over the effectiveness
of English immersion programs versus bilingual education in helping English
learners succeed in school. Each side uses its own interpretation of student
test scores to prove their case.
Bilingual educators opposed the recent appointment of
Oceanside Superintendent Ken Noonan to the state Board of Education. A
former opponent of Prop. 227, Noonan now embraces English immersion as
the best way to close the academic achievement gap for
While that debate rages on in California, the American Council on
the Teaching of Foreign Languages has declared 2005 the "Year
of Languages," advancing the belief that it's important for every
person in the United States to be proficient in at least one language
other than English.
Foreign language teachers make the case that learning a second
language opens up additional career opportunities in a rapidly expanding
global economy while helping us recognize there are more ways than one to
look at the world, enabling us to be more understanding of those who do
not share our views.
Look no further than the ugly confrontations spawned by the campaign
to protect our borders to see how sorely we need such understanding.
Most other developed countries recognize the importance of proficiency in a
second language by requiring the study of at least one other language
beginning in elementary school. In Canada, for example, French is a
required part of the curriculum, beginning in the fifth grade. According to
the foreign languages council, only about 6 percent of U.S. students study
a foreign language in elementary school.
California high school students headed for a campus at our two
public universities must complete two years of a foreign language.
But studying another language in high school for a couple of years
is unlikely to make a person much more fluent than being able to
count, say hello and goodbye, and read a few menu items.
And what makes us think fluency in another language is any less important
for those who do not go to college? They will be living in the same world as
Spanish is the first language of about one in four North County residents.
In the long run it won't really matter which teaching method has been used
to help English language learners catch up in school.
If it's successful, their bilingualism will prepare them better for success
in a multicultural world than their English-only classmates.
Contact North County Times columnist Richard Riehl at RiehlWorld2@aol.com.