History speaks in languages

Proposition 227: Voters need to study issue more closely before they head to the polls on June 2.

The school district established a law: the immigrant children could learn in their native language for one year. After that, they would learn in English.

But the teachers resisted, saying the children needed more time learning English before giving up their native language.

The governor got involved and sided with the teachers.

Soon, the children of another immigrant group started clamoring for public school instruction in their native language.

The chaos described occurred in the 1830s in New York with children whose parents spoke German and Italian.

Without the history, we might think that the bilingual controversy is new. It isn’t.

In fact, it has been going on in this country for 160 years.

And since there still is no conclusive evidence that bilingual education
works or does not work, the issue has gone into the political arena.

In nine days, Californians will decide an issue that is highly emotional.

Proposition 227 would allow students only one year of bilingual instruction before they are taught in English.

Before you vote on Proposition 227, you might want to read “The Way We Were?” by Richard Rothstein, Century Foundation Press. In an unemotional method, Rothstein traces the history of the controversy over bilingual education in America.

It is an important piece in this time of emotional ranting about the state of public schools and immigration.

In fact, California schools face a host of challenges and the language in which children are educated is only one. Unfortunately, in many minds, Proposition 227’s question on bilingual education has become mixed with the emotionally charged issues of English-only and illegal immigration. Some would have you believe that Latino kids who succeed are the exception.

Gregory Rodriguez’s 1996 report for Pepperdine University, “The Emerging Latino Middle Class,” showed that more Latino kids are graduating from high school, more are graduating from four-year colleges, and more are sharing in the higher-paying administrative and technical jobs.

So something is working, and maybe it is nothing more than longevity.

But Rothstein’s historical perspective demonstrates America has never come to grips with the question of how quickly to ease immigrant children out of teaching in their native language and into classrooms where only English is spoken.

Only the anti-German fervor of World War I interrupted the controversy. After the Kaiser, no one wanted anything to do with a foreign language for 40 years.

History shows that attempts to force these immigrant children, especially the American-born children of immigrants, into English immersion were unsuccessful.

Despite the nostalgic anecdote that “my grandparents made it and they didn’t speak English,” most German, Italian and Jewish children never made it past the eighth grade. Only third-generation children showed much success with English-language schools, Rothstein shows.

Our politicization of this issue has its precedents, too. The decision over bilingual education forced a school board out in Milwaukee in 1889, and eventually got a 7-to-2 Republican majority for Wisconsin in Congress turned into a Democratic majority of 8-to-1.

A year later, the same thing happened in Illinois.

By 1923, 35 states had adopted laws requiring all teaching to be done in English.

The trouble, of course, is that no one has evidence that bilingual education or English immersion really works. There is just anecdotal evidence.

Even in the Asian communities, Rothstein argues, the popular notion is that all Asian children do well in public school. But a 1995 study of California immigrant children shows most Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian children do poorly.

We know only that bilingual education is terribly, terribly expensive and schools are strapped for money.

Voter frustration with most government institutions is very high and most polls indicate Proposition 227 will pass.

History, however, reveals that popular propositions often fail the court test and that is probably where 227 is headed, after it is passed.

Before history repeats itself in the courthouse, voters just might want to see how history has repeated itself in the classroom.

— Tim Gallagher is editor of the Star. His column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at 655-5838; his e-mail address is gallagher@staronline.com.

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