Fernando de la Pena is a conservative who abhors ties to any political party. Frank Moreno was a student activist who served in the Democratic presidential campaigns of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter before becoming a Washington lobbyist. But in November the two found themselves united by their opposition to bilingual education. De la Pena, the founder and director of the 75-student Cambria Institute language school, and Moreno, the school’s administrator in charge of development and planning, recently shared their views with Kevin Baxter for City Times:
Question: What is the philosophy behind bilingual education?
De la Pena: The original idea was to give the student some tool, some assistance in his native language for the purpose of acquiring the English language. It was not to substitute English for Spanish.
Moreno: The prevailing thought is geared toward a bilingualism that does not use English as its focal point but rather uses Spanish as a way of developing. They teach math in Spanish and history in Spanish and save 45 minutes at the end of the day for English. But that is worn-out dogma from the ’60s. No longer should bilingualism be for the sake of making people from Latin American more proficient in their Spanish so they can better learn English. But rather they should immerse themselves as quickly as possible in the English language.
Q: What’s wrong with bilingual education?
Moreno: It doesn’t work. The best way is to learn one language well, and one language at a time. Let me give you an example. My sister was a bilingual teacher at Hoover Elementary School. But she left frustrated, deeply disappointed in the school system. Why are we teaching our students over 50% of the time in Spanish — from first grade through sixth grade — when they should be immersed in the English language? When the students go into junior high school they have to take an English Proficiency Test, and they’re still lagging behind.
A student still does not know how to compose a sentence. He still cannot carry on a conversation. He goes into high school not being able to communicate well. The student comes out of school still not being able to speak English, still not being able to write in English. And when he comes out, does he go to college? No. He just takes a menial job.
De la Pena: The theory of bilingual education makes sense, but they never stopped to think of a few problems. Stop and think: You’re going to use a native language, in this case Spanish. But precisely what dialect are you going to use? Are we going to go back 30 years, to say, that the only Hispanic here comes from Mexico? And at that, only the northern part of Mexico? In Chinese, they have 300 and some-odd dialects. What dialect are you going to use?
If bilingual education were to mean that you’re merely using the native language so that you can, as quickly as possible, make the transition into English, then that is not what’s happening now. It is a fraud.
The people behind bilingual education are well-meaning, but they are well-meaning fools. Do not underestimate the students. If it hurts to learn English in a sink-or-swim manner — and it does — it hurts a lot more to be ridiculed by your friends because after five years, six years, 10 years you still cannot express yourself in English and you still cannot write a lousy letter.
There was a time when bilingual education was needed, but that time was 1968. That time has passed.
Moreno: In the ’90s, Latasha Harlins happened. In the ’90s, Latinos and blacks don’t get along. In the ’90s, Koreans and blacks don’t get along. The misunderstandings are misunderstandings of words. They can’t communicate with each other. English is the paramount point at which everybody can become unified.
Q: If the point of school is educating children, and the children learn better and faster in their native language, why force them to learn English? Can’t they get along in their communities speaking Korean, Spanish or Chinese?
Moreno: We don’t want to just “get along.” Learning English is a way for us to become a citizen, for us to move up. What chance does a person have to get a job if that person doesn’t speak English? Some of us stay with menial jobs for 10 to 15 years.
De la Pena: We want a piece of the pie. We don’t want to work at Taco Bell; we want to own Taco Bell.
There’s a lot of suffering going on because we cannot express ourselves in English. I’ve always felt English was the most important tool that an immigrant could have in order to get along in this country. Without English, you can’t go to the police. You cannot explain to the doctor that your mother has had a heart attack.
Moreno: And if that person goes to court, will he address the jury in English? No! He’ll need a translator. But what if the translator says the wrong thing? Who will correct him? Think of what all that does to a community. Think of what it does to the Pico-Union community, where I live. It keeps that community down. It keeps it from communicating with other communities. What we are doing is segregating communities instead of forcing them together.
The people of this community, the immigrant people of this community, realize what it takes to be successful. And learning English is a way we can proceed. We can get together, we can communicate, we can become better citizens, we can vote, we can become taxpayers, we can have a voice. And this is the only way we can do it.
Q: If the solutions are so obvious and the desires so widespread in the community, why haven’t these changes taken place?
Moreno: We don’t feel that our political leadership has responded to the needs — not only of our community but a lot of other communities.
De la Pena: There are many, many forces that don’t want us to learn English. I’m a cynic, but what am I supposed to think? This is a national crisis! Everyone is always joking about the 7 Eleven workers who cannot speak English. Well, stop complaining about it and teach them English.
As people learn to speak English, they will learn to ask questions. And they won’t accept the politicians translating their problems for them. As we learn English, we will elect better politicians. Now we are getting involved. This should be a warning to the politicians. Maybe that’s another reason they don’t want us to learn English.
Look at the problems we have in our community: high dropout rates, drugs, crime, teen pregnancy. We’ll take care of all these problems ourselves if we can learn English.