I’ve started a Spanish class. You see, I’m a squandered asset.
My parents were Mexican immigrants. When I started school back in sink-or-swim 1958, there existed an opportunity to develop in me proficiency in two languages – a missed opportunity as it turns out.
We are missing the same opportunity with thousands of school kids today. We do this essentially because we view Spanish as an affliction rather than a talent.
Assimilation, English immersion in school, television and a voracious appetite for reading did their jobs quite well on me. My parents gave up at a certain point and spoke English to us at home or, when speaking to us in Spanish, allowed us to respond in English, a move they grew to regret.
My English is so proficient that I make a decent living as a columnist and an author. And now, well into adulthood, I will be taking yet another Spanish class.
My aim is to move beyond basic conversation and the tug of Spanglish to true literacy – the ability to read, write and converse fluently in Spanish, without stumble, hesitation and the crutch of a Spanish/English dictionary.
And I am ashamed. Ashamed of both my failure to speak, read and write the tongue of my parents as well as I should and the utter waste of public school systems that allow foreign language abilities to go undeveloped.
Bilingual education opponents view people like me as success stories. To a point, I agree. English is a noble goal and is, in fact, the goal of bilingual education.
But I think of the cost. I think about what might have been.
A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau said nearly one-fifth of U.S. schoolchildren speak a language other than English at home and that Spanish is that other language for nearly seven out of 10 of these.
Without a doubt, these children present some challenges to our public schools. If we were smarter, however, we’d know that the real challenge is not to cure them of their native tongues but to increase their fluency and literacy while teaching English at the same time.
Our unwillingness to do so reveals severe shortsightedness and, despite assertions to the contrary, hostility to other languages. The other day, I sat next to a woman from Switzerland. In her school there, she was taught French, German, Italian and English. What a difference.
Think about the implications for communication, commerce and, simply, our ability to get along with and understand one another if this were to happen here with our two dominant languages, English and Spanish.
OK, but you remember a firm commitment to Spanish. A teacher tried to teach you in grade school.
Yes, I remember that, too. I remember that most of the teachers spoke less Spanish than I did. And I’ve noticed that these grade-school programs were so instructive that we all speak Spanish, right? Sorry, most Americans are stuck at the como-esta-usted stage.
What I’m really talking about is ratcheting bilingual education up a notch, not down. But two states, Arizona and California, have now banned bilingual education (though it’s interesting to note that bilingual education still seems to be occurring to some degree in both) and other states, notably Colorado and Massachusetts, are considering the same type of initiatives.
The message in such initiatives is certainly not that we value Spanish. Nor is it quality education. If it were, we’d fix bilingual ed, not scrap it.
Some will argue that if we do what I’m suggesting for Spanish speakers, we should also do so for Asian, Bosnian and French kids here. OK, but the Census says seven of the 10 kids who speak other languages are speaking Spanish. And we’re not sharing that 2,000-mile border to the south of us with French or German speakers.
In existing dual language classes, the kids are Mexican, and just about anyone else who wants to learn fluency in both languages.
School is supposed to be about teaching kids the skills they need to thrive. Increasingly in the United States and throughout the globalized economy, bilingualism is a premium skill.
Now, we only need to rise above our nativist sentiments to get serious about teaching it.
The U.S.-born son of Mexican immigrants, Ricardo Pimentel (email@example.com) began his journalism career in the U.S. Navy in 1973. He is a columnist and editorial board member at The Arizona Republic.