I make a living by using the English language. But there was a time when I did not know English.
I remember sitting in the back of fifth grade class in Roosevelt School,
in Union City, New Jersey, unable to comprehend anything the teacher was saying. By sixth grade I understood almost everything, and my writing and speaking were getting better. By seventh grade I could handle English as well as anyone in the class.
Still, fifth grade was a loss. I learned English, yes, but nothing of what other fifth graders learned about history or math or science.
Yet I was lucky. Because I had come to the U.S. at the relatively young age of 11, I was able to pretty much handle myself in English one year after I had arrived. Younger kids can learn even faster. But the scrambling hormones of adolescence destroy the brain’s ability to simply soak up a new language,
with the result that teenagers cannot learn one as easily as young children can.
This fact of human physiology is the best argument for bilingual education,
the system that allows non-English speakers the opportunity to learn basic subjects in their own language while they learn English. 15-year-olds who do not speak English and have no access to bilingual education can spend sophomore year, junior year and maybe even senior year struggling with teachers they don’t quite understand.
Bilingual education does not always work–there is evidence that in some school districts students aren’t taught English as well or as rapidly as should be. But when bilingual education does work, it is eminently sensible;
the only way, really, to make sure immigrant kids keep up with everyone else.
But now there is a move in California to do away with the whole thing.
Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who ran for governor in 1994,
is trying to get enough signatures to put on the 1998 ballot an initiative that would practically end bilingual education for the 1.3 million California school children who are learning English. Parents who want their children in bilingual classes would have to request it, and schools would not have to honor the request unless they had 20 applications.
Unz’ opposition to bilingual education is based on false premises. He claims the California system has a 95 percent failure rate because only 5 percent of the students are mainstreamed to English classes every year
— a meaningless argument. Perhaps first graders can be mainstreamed in one year’s time, but it is not realistic to expect high schoolers to be ready too. Besides, even if it were true that younger children are kept from the mainstream longer than they need to be, the answer is to fix what’s wrong with bilingual education, not end it as Unz seeks to do.
Mistaken though he is, Unz appears sincere. At least, he does not seem motivated by a hidden agenda of anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant sentiment.
When he ran in the Republican primary of 1994, Unz criticized Gov. Pete Wilson for his anti-immigrant positions and specifically came out against Proposition 187. He also told the newsletter Hispanic Link that he is going to place "most of the effort on the Hispanic immigrant vote" and that "nobody who is in any way identified with Proposition 187 or any of the anti-immigrant movement will get within a mile of this initiative."
Sincere or not, however, the issue itself remains. There is certainly a legitimate argument, on both sides, about how much bilingual education young children need. But there is no sensible argument whatsoever against bilingual education for older children. Unz seems to be a man of common sense, not driven by ideological rantings. He needs to stop, take a deep breath, and imagine himself a 15-year-old who speaks no English and is required,
by law, to spend his high school years in classrooms where he cannot understand his teachers.