In his May 4 column (“This time, California puts forth right idea”), Donald Kaul proposed getting rid of bilingual education.

In a sink-or-swim situation, some non-English speakers will always swim. Of course, many more will sink. With a little less toughness or a few more non-academic problems, Mr. Kaul’s father sadly might have been one of those.

This country has had “sink or swim.” Perhaps Mr. Kaul should check the dropout rate for non-English speakers during those glory days before he opts for a return to the practice.

In the attempt to absorb the large number of minorities entering our nation, many states, including California, have reacted with something approaching panic. Suddenly we have large numbers of people crossing our borders who do not speak our language and with whom we can’t communicate. So we try to force them to learn English as quickly as possible – actually, more quickly than possible.

In some cases we enact legislation that appears xenophobic. In Arizona we have watched our neighboring states fall into this trap, and as a result, we have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

All Americans need to speak English. It is the language of practical communication; the primary language of government, trade and commerce; and probably the closest thing to an international lingua franca.

Immigrants need it for practical reasons and they obviously want it for their children. Many are even willing to sacrifice the language of their traditions for it, but why should they have to choose? It is not necessary to give up one language to learn another. The human mind is capable of fluency in several languages.

Mr. Kaul believes that “bilingual education makes sense only to the degree that it accelerates the mastery of English.” I disagree.

Although a quality bilingual program increases achievement in English, that is not the only reason to promote bilingual education.

Having educated speakers of other languages is in our national political and economic best interests. English proficiency alone will not be sufficient for the international economic marketplace. Trade agreements such as NAFTA and the Free Trade Zone of the Americas, which would include 34 member nations, favors bilingualism. Being bilingual and biliterate is in the individual’s best interest, too, as it provides career opportunities.

But beyond these practical reasons, there are humanitarian reasons. If society accepts and encourages linguistic differences, the individual will feel free to integrate socially and politically, as well as economically. All humans need to be accepted for who they are. Language and ethnicity are part of personal identity.

Immigrants should not have to sacrifice their linguistic and cultural heritage. Quality bilingual programs can teach English as well as literacy in the native language. It is possible, even valued, to be a member of two cultures and speak and write two languages.

Surely many parents would embrace the opportunity to enroll their children in two-way bilingual programs. Dual language programs have an excellent track record and are highly regarded by parents and educators alike. According to studies by Virginia Collier and others, students enrolled in dual language programs for a number of years score higher on standardized tests, in both their first and second languages, than their monolingual peers.

Language minorities can be a problem to which we react or a resource to help us add other languages to our outmoded monolingualism. It depends on which viewpoint we choose as a state and as a nation. In one direction lies fear, divisiveness, resistance and clinging to the past.

In the other lies mutual understanding, respect and a movement into the future. Antonio R. Hurtado is a bilingual teacher and lives in Glendale.

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