THE sixth graders in Hilary Cooper’s class are learning to write research papers. The topic is invertebrates and they can focus on any animal they wish, Ms. Cooper said. For the past month, she has been patiently showing them how to take notes, compile a bibliography, and produce an outline. It is slow going, but worth it, she said. ”I want them to understand that doing a research paper is more than going to an encyclopedia and copying down what it says,” she said.
The 27 students in Ms. Cooper’s class are Hispanic. Ms. Cooper has taught bilingual classes in the Dominick S. Burns elementary school in Hartford for seven years, but this is the first year she has been able to conduct a class predominantly in English instead of Spanish. This is because, for the first time, the school has two bilingual sixth-grade teachers, and she is teaching the youngsters who are more proficient, she said.
Two measures introduced in the General Assembly to declare English the state’s official language have put under close scrutiny the question of whether English should be stressed more in bilingual classes throughout the state.
The measures in Connecticut are part of a nationwide trend of challenging bilingual education, election ballots and government documents.
Opposing the challenges are educators, civil libertarians and others who maintain the attacks on bilingualism infringe upon the rights of Hispanic people and other minorities, and could fuel racism. A leading proponent of making English the state’s official language is State Senator Thomas Scott, a New Haven Republican, who said, ”the language of everyday America is English.”
”The language of American government is English,” he said. ”The language of American business is English. We are not a dual-language society.”
But the executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, William Olds, said passage of such a bill would be harmful.
”These proposals have very serious and widespread ramifications which would affect not only schools, but also courtrooms, hospitals and voting booths,” Mr. Olds said. ”We believe this would affect the Constitutional rights of numerous citizens of the United States.”
Another opponent, State Representative Jose C. Lugo, a Bridgeport Democrat who is Hispanic, said he was concerned that prejudice was behind the measures.
”Prejudice has to be what is behind these proposals,” he said. ”There is prejudice all over the country.”
Mr. Scott has proposed both a new state law and a Constitutional amendment to make English Connecticut’s official tongue. Similar measures are also being sponsored by Republican Representatives Francis X. O’Neill Jr. of Guilford, J. Vincent Chase of Stratford and Senator George L. Gunther, Republican of Stratford.
Representatives John D. Mordasky of Stafford and Dean P. Markham of East Hampton, both Democrats, have also submitted bills.
These statewide measures mirror moves across the nation. There is a bill before Congress to consider a Constitutional amendment making English the official language of the United States. The states of California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and Virginia have approved similar statewide measures, but the proposals have been defeated in Montana, New Hampshire and Wyoming.
Several states are considering proposals, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, according to George Tryfiates, director of governmental affairs for English First, a Virginia-based national lobbying group.
In Connecticut, the views among lawmakers submitting measures vary greatly. On one hand, Representative O’Neill said he believed English should be declared Connecticut’s official language, but he did not take issue with the state’s bilingual program.
Senator Scott, on the other hand, stated that dismantling the bilingual education program is one of his major intents. He also wants to do away with dual-language signs and eliminate a state regulation requiring communities with Hispanic populations of 1 percent or more to provide interpreters for voter canvassing and registration.
Representatives Mordasky and Markham are less certain the bilingual program should be eliminated, but they are concerned about its effectiveness, they said.
But all three lawmakers agree that the state’s bilingual education was in need of study.
”We want to get back to basic English rather then reverting to a bilingual deal,” Representative Mordasky said. ”In my day, we never had any bilingual deal for any other immigrants that came in, be they Polish, Irish, Italian or Swedish, we never did. I feel that English is slipping away.” Representative Mordasky said.
But Representative Lugo maintains that since English already was the language spoken in Connecticut, these measures were a waste of time.
” I don’t see the necessity for these bills,” he said. ”Surely, we can spend our days doing something for the betterment of the state rather than spending our time on something we do not need.”
In 1977, the General Assembly passed a law requiring that any school that has at least 20 youngsters who are able to speak the same native language but do not speak English must provide bilingual education.
Under the bilingual program, students are taught English, but they are taught other academic subjects in their native tongues until they are proficient enough to study all of their subjects in English.
Currently, there are about 11,000 youngsters enrolled in bilingual classes in 12 districts: Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, Meriden, Naugatuck, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, Stamford, Waterbury and Windham.
The idea behind the program is to teach students English, while providing them with instruction in their native tongue to make sure they do not fall behind, said State Education Commissioner Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzi.
”I absolutely want all children to learn English, but it is imperative that they keep up with all other subjects,” he said. ”If you are not instructing them in their native language while they learn English, you are doing them a disservice.”
Senator Scott, however, believes otherwise. He pointed to a recent poll, conducted by The Hartford Courant and the Institute for Social Inquiry, which questioned 500 residents and found that 9 out of 10 support making English the state’s official language. In addition, 72 percent said schoolchildren should be taught all of their courses in English and half of the respondents said bilingual education made it harder for non-English speaking children to learn English.
These poll results worry Dr. Tirozzi, who said he found bilingual education ”an emotional issue” that was difficult for the public to understand.
”Bilingual education is probably one of the most misunderstood programs we have,” Dr. Tirozzi said. ”There is a mistaken belief among the public that bilingual education seeks to subvert English, and that is not the case.”
According to Senator Scott, bilingual education fosters dependence on the native language and destroys the youngster’s incentive to learn English. Instead, Senator Scott would substitute a method known as ”immersion” in which non-English speaking students are provided with special help, but attend all-English classes.
”Immersion emphasizes English first,” he said. ”Students are given crash courses in English. Students learn it much more quickly and they are assimilated.”
But the director of the State Education Department’s bilingual program, Dr. Angie Soler Galiano, disagrees, saying immersion is a ”simplistic solution” to the language issue.
She also disagrees with the contention that earlier waves of immigrants were able to succeed without bilingual education.
”America has had a history of bilingual education, going back to the 1600’s, when the Jesuits instructed the Native Americans,” she said.
”The public clings to the idea of the melting pot, but that was not the case,” she said, noting that bilingual programs existed in the Northeast for French Canadians and in the Midwest for Germans, until the start of World War I. Also, ”the idea, ‘my grandfather made it, so these kids can too,’ is not true,” she said.
”Statistics show that immigrant children whose families spoke a different language at home did fall behind,” she said.
Critics of bilingual education cite a survey last year that showed that only 6 percent of the students enrolled in Connecticut’s bilingual program learned English well enough to be placed in regular classes.
”That’s proof that the program does not work,” Senator Scott said.
However, Dr. Tirozzi contended that it was misleading to look only at statistics.
”These youngsters are highly transient,” he said. ”Plus statistics show poverty impacts Hispanics the most. If these kids come to school, and they are hungry, all this impacts on education.”
Critics of the pro-English measures are also concerned that making English Connecticut’s official language would indicate to minority students that their languages and cultures were second-rate.
Dr. Galiano said she was troubled by the tendency to make bilingual education a target, when the effectiveness of foreign langauge courses was never questioned.
”If we gave a test to all the students taking French or Spanish to determine whether we should continue teaching foreign language, based on the results of how much of the language was actually being learned, those courses would be cut,” she said. ”But foreign languages are fun, they’re nice, no one questions it.”
Dr. Tirozzi said the state was taking steps to improve its bilingual program.
The results of a second evaluation are to be presented to the State Board of Education next month. In addition, a special panel that has been studying the bilingual program is to present its recommendations to the board within the next few months. The department is considering giving mastery tests, the achievement tests taken by students, in Spanish. At present, youngsters in bilingual classes are exempt from taking the tests.
Representative Markham said his motive in championing English was not to shut out Hispanic people, but to help them succeed in a society where they eventually must learn the language in order to get ahead. Critics who take jabs at his proposal are missing the point, he said.
”A lot of people play it up humorously,” he said. ”They say ‘Connecticut’ is derived from an Indian word. I don’t think that is the point of all this. A lot of people are not functioning as they could and cannot break into society because English is the dominant language and, unless they can break in, they’ll be stuck.”