THE ONE absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.” So warned Teddy Roosevelt in 1915.
We have avoided that danger here — which Canada clearly has not (see
previous article). We have avoided it in part because of the common use of English by all of the immigrants that make up America: Adopting the English language has always been part of becoming American. Relative ease of communication in a single language has provided a kind of national glue, a common thread to the creation and development of a nation that is spread over a wide area and harbors diverse interests, beliefs and national origins.
But a threat to that thread is emerging in the increasingly strident political campaign for separate Spanish teaching. Fortunately, most Hispanic-Americans don’t support the idea. A loud minority of Hispanic politicians and leftish liberals do.
“There are obvious differences [with Canada], but the parallels are clear enough,” says Kathryn Bricker, executive director of U.S. English. This is the organization founded by former Senator S. I. Hayakawa to pursue his idea of a constitutional amendment that would make English the official language of the U.S.
Bilingual teaching began as an off-shoot of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It was at first intended to help so-called LEP kids (for
limited-English-proficient) get into the mainstream of economic life by teaching them English. But it has turned into a monster born out of a loosely worded 1974 decision from the Supreme Court (Lau v. Nichols). This concerned a complaint by a Chinese that his children were not being taught English adequately in the local public schools. One possible remedy listed by Justice William Douglas was teaching the children in Chinese.
And then the predictable happened. The Department of Education was established in the Carter era and was looking for something to do. Why not promote bilingualism? There would be jobs and money in it. So it didn’t take the bureaucrats long to launch a vast, federally funded bilingual education program. Because by far the largest number of immigrants today come from Spanish-speaking countries, Spanish was the logical co-language.
In many areas of the country where there are concentrations of Spanish-speaking kids, bilingual education has in practice turned into mostly Spanish teaching. “If it is measured against the original intent, to teach English to disadvantaged children, it’s a failure. If it had been intended to teach Spanish, it would have been a tremendous success,” says Bricker.
The clearest indication of failure is the high dropout rate of Hispanic high school kids. Since the early 1970s, the dropout rate for white children has been tending down slightly. The drop-out rate for black kids has more or less halved and is now roughly the same as for whites. The exception is for Hispanics. Their dropout rate is stubbornly high, roughly double that for the other groups, and the trend, if anything, has recently been rising slightly. Yet — and here’s an apparent paradox — Spanish-speaking Americans have a lower unemployment rate than blacks and slightly higher average earnings. How come?
A survey by the Civil Rights Commission has found that when the differences in educational attainment, and especially for proficiency in English, are eliminated, what emerges is that Hispanics do as well as the rest of the population. A logical conclusion is that the poor language proficiency of many Hispanics is dragging down their average economic performance.
The issue of Spanish-language teaching of Hispanics is emotion-charged. Merely raising questions about the efficiency of the so-called bilingual program often leads to accusations of racism. Such noises come mainly from those that benefit most from these programs — Hispanic politicians, bureaucrats whose careers depend on the programs, the providers of textbooks in Spanish and, maybe, some teachers who retain their jobs (and sometimes get a bonus) because they speak Spanish.
It’s a big economic issue, too, for these groups. A guesstimate by the Education Department suggests that when the $ 160 million cost of the Bilingual Education Act, 1974, is added to other programs involved in bilingual education, the cost reaches $ 1.5 billion a year. Each child in bilingual education is “worth” around $ 350 a year to a school. But “once they become fluent in English, the school district loses its bilingual funding,” explains Sally Peterson, a teacher for 26 years at Glenwood Elementary School, Sun Valley, Calif., and founder of the 20,000-member Learning English Advocates Drive.
The crying shame is how badly that money serves those it is intended to help. As jobs tend away from assembly-line work, where little language is involved, to computer screens, pay and working conditions depend on educational and English attainment. Today’s anti-English bias, it seems, sentences too many minority school leavers, particularly Hispanics, to a second-class economic life.
Typically, the pols’ response is to call for yet more money to be poured into a failed program. Fortunately, most Hispanic-Americans don’t buy those arguments. A government survey asked Hispanic parents to rank 70 items in importance to their children’s education. Teaching them English was third, teaching them Spanish was third, too, but from the bottom. A recent poll by the San Francisco Chronicle showed that 69% of Hispanics approved of English being the official state language in California.
But the proponents of bilingualism tend to be types who know what is best for other people, even if the majority doesn’t agree.
So, would a constitutional amendment, as proposed by ex-Senator Hayakawa (see
box) and now by Representative William Emerson (R-Mo.), solve the problem? It wouldn’t hurt.
To oppose bilingualism is not the same thing as opposing the teaching of foreign languages. It is merely to insist that to be American one should understand English — a not very onerous requirement. In any case, some 23 states, from Arizona to Virginia, have passed or have pending legislation to make English the official language.
Bilingualism undermines the very basis on which this country has been built: assimilation of diverse nationalities into a new nationality. Many intellectuals scorn what this country represents, and for them bilingualism is a handy tool. It is a handy tool, too, for those looking for ways to pry money out of the taxpayer. But, as Canadians have learned, it is not a good way to create a national identity or preserve national unity.