Trust power of bilingualism
The Tribune (San Luis Obispo)
Nov. 22, 2005

By Johanna Rubba

Once again, Victor Davis Hanson (Commentary, Nov. 20) pontificates beyond his area of expertise, declaring English "our common bond" and claiming bilingual education "eroded first-generation immigrants' facility in English."

He also makes the typical, right-wing appeal to the non- existent "good old days" in referring to the "the inclusivity that once worked" prior to the 1960s. Those were the days when blacks were restricted to inferior schools, neighborhoods and jobs; Jews were not welcome at posh country clubs; and more than half the population, viz., women, were acceptable in the workforce as long as they did not aspire to men's jobs and accepted sexual comments and advances from their bosses. Very inclusive.

All of these people spoke English. Blacks and whites shared English in the South for hundreds of years, but the bondage of slavery seems to have trumped the "bond" of a common language. Speaking English did not help Irish immigrants in the 19th century, who suffered serious discrimination, in large measure because they were Catholic. Oh, and the sovereign against whom American colonists revolted in the 1770s spoke ... English. Language certainly can be a common bond, but that bond is easily overridden by divisive forces such as racism, sexism and religious intolerance.

Hanson refers to Quebec, perhaps with the strife between French and English speakers in mind. Language-based strife generally arises when those in power suppress a language. The English imposed restrictions on French in Quebec long before the Quebecois turned the tables; strife in Sri Lanka, eastern Turkey and apartheid in South Africa resulted partly or mainly from language oppression (remember the Soweto massacre, in which white South Africans shot and killed children who were marching for the right to be schooled in a language they understood).

Immigrants come to America because they share values like economic opportunity, freedom of speech and religion and a superior education for their children (sadly, only some reap these benefits). The great majority of immigrants want to learn English and want their children to learn English. Historically, the languages of immigrant groups cease to be used by those groups by the third generation born on American soil; the current wave is following suit.

Where bilingual education has failed, it has failed mainly because affluent Americans do not want to use their tax dollars to support a high-quality education for the poor. Bilingual education comes in many forms, and there are forms that work: resource-intensive programs that give children five to seven years to master English while cultivating academic proficiency in their native language. Tell me who has better potential for "economic security" in today's global economy -- a monolingual person or someone literate and fluent in two or more languages? Isn't there a certain irony in the fact that we encourage or require middle-class children to study a second language in high school or college, but we do our best to discourage bilingualism in immigrant children?

I recommend that Mr. Hanson consult the large body of scholarly research by language experts on bilingual education and language policy. An excellent resource is James Crawford's substantial Web site, including the page "Ten Common Fallacies About Bilingual Education" ( /crawford01.html) and the site "The Effectiveness of ilingual Education," hosted by the Center for Applied Linguistics, ( He will then have standing to express an opinion on these issues.
Johanna Rubba is associate professor of linguistics at Cal Poly.