ANAHEIM—The federal director of minority language affairs and the head of the state teachers union praised bilingual education Wednesday as a means of fostering better understanding of foreign culture and lashed out at English-only advocates.
Rita Esquivel, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs, stressed that bilingual educators must teach students about the differences in various cultures as well as a new language in order for California, which she called “the new Ellis Island,” to prosper.
“This is not a matter of substituting hot dogs for Peking duck, or mariachis for Madonna,” she said in a luncheon speech at the annual conference of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. “It’s a means of expanding the world within each (bilingual student).”
Basing parts of her speech on the conference theme, “Bilingual Education: A Tapestry of Languages,” Esquivel, once a teacher in Santa Monica, said that not only is bilingual education a tapestry of languages, “it is equally a tapestry of cultures and values.”
By instructing students in both English and their native language, students “are forced to come to terms with their heritage” while learning about “new identities and multiple cultures and values,” Esquivel said.
“Each language that we know allows us access to a (new) world, to a particular way of thinking,” she said.
She added that some advocates of teaching students only in English raise some legitimate questions when voicing concerns that instructing students in a variety of languages and cultures is potentially divisive. But, she said, she believes that “some of the opponents to bilingual education (are) motivated by prejudice.”
While Esquivel calmly explored both sides of the bilingual education argument, Ed Foglia, president of the California Teachers Assn., was more blunt in his assessment of multilingual and multicultural curricula.
“Bilingual education is the hope of the future in California,” Foglia said in an impassioned speech. “The Neanderthals who would sell the state on English-only should be put away because it (English-only) is not the wave of the future.”
Esquivel said teaching in just one language is often ineffective because certain concepts cannot be directly translated from one language to another.
As an example, she cited the case of a woman who could not translate from English to Chinese when a child said, “I changed my mind,” because the concept of children changing a decision is not acceptable in Chinese culture.
“In Chinese society, children don’t change their mind,” Esquivel said. “Imagine, on the other hand, an American child who doesn’t, or isn’t allowed, to change their mind.”
In addition to the English-only advocates, Foglia also lashed out at the standardized California Assessment Program tests, which he said are biased against children whose primary language is not English because it fails to account for cultural differences, and at the practice of placing non-English-speaking students in lower-level classes.
“We have spoken in this state over 100 different languages . . . but bilingual education is still considered a remedial subject,” he said.
The California Assn. for Bilingual Education conference is being held at the Anaheim Hilton and Towers and continues through Saturday.<