In the movie Avalon, there’s a funny scene in which the son of an immigrant family in Baltimore asks his teacher to be excused. The teacher replies, “You can go to the restroom, but you may not.”
The boy continues to ask if he can go, prompting the frustrated teacher to send him to the principal’s office for insubordination. When his Jewish immigrant grandfather goes to the principal’s office, he doesn’t understand the subtle difference either. “May go, can go – your English is so complicated.”
Such was life in 1914. Complicated, yet so simple.
Many English-only speakers yearn for those simpler days, when millions of immigrant children were expected to learn English without any instruction in their native tongue. Now many of these immigrants’ great-grandchildren wonder why today’s immigrants expect special treatment like bilingual education. The common gripe: Our ancestors made it by just speaking English, why can’t these people today?
Well, let’s see why these immigrants of yore made it at the turn of the century. For one, only 13 of every 100 children – whether they spoke English or not – even remained in school until the age of 16 during those blissful days. Society didn’t put the premium on education that it does today. It didn’t need to.
With the industrial revolution in full force, the U.S. economy was primed for labor at slave wages, and that’s what these immigrants provided in sweat shops from New York to Los Angeles. Beyond the big cities, the economy still revolved around farming. You didn’t need to read or speak English to plant and sow seeds, herd cattle or clean a barnyard.
As the labor movement took hold in the 1930s and beyond, many of these immigrants’ children did well, earning enough in factory jobs to buy modest homes and even send their children to college.
Today, however, most factory jobs have gone to Asia and Latin America. The job options in a service-oriented economy like ours? Work in hotels, restaurants and department stores that pay too little for families to save for a home, much less for a college education for their children. Or, with money and time, learning computer skills to get high-tech jobs that pay handsomely.
That’s why today’s immigrants – the largest group coming from Latin America – see the necessity for bilingual education. It can help their children catch up quickly to the demands of our high-tech society.
The sad irony is, the children of English-only speakers who view the use of other languages in public schools as a threat to the American way of life may lose out in tomorrow’s workplace, where satellite communications and international trade will put a premium on workers who speak other languages. Yet most schools are reluctant to offer true bilingual education so that American children can master foreign languages. Instead, bilingual education is confined to teaching English to immigrants.
Even when attempts are made to bridge over the language gap, the messages are often mixed. Orange County’s school board, for instance, recently held its first-ever bilingual meeting, in Spanish and English. A nice gesture, but it failed miserably. The meeting, which I attended, had a “them” versus “us” surrealism about it that seemed to want to put Orlando’s Latinos in their place.
At any regular meeting, for instance, parents who want to speak to the board can sign up a week in advance to have their say. At this meeting, however, no notice was provided to the Spanish-speaking parents who wanted to come before the board. Instead, people were handed cards to scribble a sentence or two for a translator to relate to the board.
That forum let school officials off the hook. Many times, they responded, “Well, I don’t know these specific circumstances, but we do try to meet the needs of all our children.” Period. Case closed. Don’t bother us with the details about your petty little problems.
Perhaps it was just a simple misunderstanding – like the use of can when it should be may.