IN JULY, as part of my responsibilities as a summer school principal, I evaluated a kindergarten bilingual class.
The teacher, Mrs. Susan Terrell, conducted the lesson in Spanish. I understand some Spanish and can speak even less, so I knew I had to pay attention. Because the teacher was outstanding and used visual teaching devices to give context to the lesson beyond language, with intense concentration and my limited Spanish, I could grasp what was going on.
It was, however, an exhausting struggle.
As I returned to my office, I knew that the intellectual calisthenics that left me so exhausted are exactly what non-English-speaking students struggle with lesson after lesson, hour after hour, every day.
Opponents of bilingual education should experience what I did that morning.
Study after study confirms that if students first become fluent in their primary language, acquiring a second language is easier. The only reason I was able to understand anything in Terrell’s class was because of my primary language proficiency. There still is no credible study that supports the kind of sink-or-swim approach American schools imposed on non-English -speaking children before the advent of bilingual instruction.
Opponents of bilingual education have never relied upon empiricism to support their English-only views.
In 1995, opposition to bilingual education, like the attacks on affirmative action, has deep roots in a nostalgic philistinism, seasoned with a dash of resurgent ’90s racism. It dismisses things like pluralism, research studies, numbers and facts.
Opponents of bilingual education hark back to the days when their grandparents or great-grandparents came to this country and had to go to school to learn English and assimilate into the dominant culture. The power of this immigrant mythology is strong and, like all myths, contains elements of truth.
What opponents of bilingualism fail to add is that most of their grandparents and great-grandparents did not do well in school, precisely because many of the public schools forced them to learn in English and, consequently, a majority of them dropped out of school.
Fortunately, for the first two-thirds of this century, our economy provided well-paying manufacturing jobs that offered these semi-literate immigrants and their descendants a living wage and entry into the middle class.
Today, those jobs that served as life preservers for school dropouts throughout much of the 20th century are gone. An individual’s success in 21st century America is more dependent on education than ever before.
This is why bilingual education must not be abolished. It is the best way to ensure that non-English-speaking students can learn English and achieve success and self-sufficiency.
All this noise about bilingual education being “educational apartheid” is nonsense.
A return to English-only would truly perpetuate an apartheid mentality because the American economy no longer has a place for the fallout from such a system.
Because of my “pocho” status, I’ve avoided this issue. But, in the aftermath of Proposition 187 and with affirmative action going down the tubes, I cannot stand idly by. As an educator, I know that eliminating bilingual instruction may do incredible harm to a large number of students, including those kindergarteners in my summer school program.
There is a seductive simplicity to Bob Dole’s calls for the end of bilingual education or Newt Gingrich’s contention that returning to the values of the 1950s will help rebuild America.
Living in our modern multicultural society is messy and hard, but turning back the clock is not the answer.
San Francisco educator and free-lance journalist.