Speaking English

The debate over bilingual education has evolved into a political and pedagogical hot potato as the nation undergoes a wave of Third World immigration.

SWEETWATER, FLA.—In this Miami suburb that has become known as “Little Managua,” 85 per cent of the pupils in fifth-grade teacher Maria Medina’s classroom are refugees who have arrived from Nicaragua within the past year, some within the past week. The rest are from other Latin American countries.

On a recent afternoon, Medina was drilling her charges in arithmetic. Chalked on the blackboard was a problem involving the subtraction of mixed fractions. At one point in the calculations, a student hesitated and Medina switched from English to Spanish to prompt him. “Once?” she suggested, using the Spanish word (pronounced OWN-say) for 11.

The youngster, glancing out of the corner of his eye at a non-Hispanic visitor who had entered the room, declined to reply in Spanish. Instead, he crisply told the teacher that the answer was “11.”

That’s the way he should have answered, explained Maria Rodriguez, principal of Sweetwater Elementary School, where the continuing influx of refugees from Nicaragua has brought daily attendance to nearly double the building’s intended capacity and has forced the addition of 17 portable classrooms.

The class taught by Medina, a U.S. native of Cuban descent, is 1 of 13 at Sweetwater Elementary that is designated as an “English for speakers of other languages” unit.

The teaching method employed, principal Rodriguez explained, involves intensive exposure to English “based on listening and speaking.” In math, science and social studies, however, new concepts are first explained in the students’ native Spanish. After the idea has been grasped, the youngsters are taught to express their newfound knowledge in English.

The goal is to try to prevent the youngsters from falling behind in those subjects during the time it takes to learn English well enough to move into a regular classroom. According to Dade County school superintendent Joseph A. Fernandez, such “mainstreaming” occurs within two-three years.

Throughout their schooling, these students will also continue to study the grammar and vocabulary of their own language. Similarly, non-Spanish-speakers at Sweetwater and other elementary schools in the county are taught Spanish as a second language, unless their parents choose not to have them take the course.

The Dade County public schools, in which 46 per cent of the students are Hispanic and an abundance of teachers and administrators speak both English and Spanish, are uniquely equipped to provide bilingual learning opportunities for all students. The system also offers bilingual instruction in its extensive adult education program. In the Miami area, those with knowledge of both languages often find it easier to get jobs.

In most of the rest of the county, bilingual education means something very different. The hodgepodge of teaching methods that go by that name are overwhelmingly designed to teach English to those who do not already know it, not to produce students who speak two languages. Some educators frequently believe that immigrant children fare best when weaned as quickly as possible from their native tongue. Others argue with equal passion that those children learn better when their original language and culture are reinforced.

The debate over bilingual education has evolved into a political and pedagogical hot potato without compare. It is an issue that arouses civil rights advocates, provides a rallying point for Hispanic and Asian interest groups and has given rise to an “Official English” lobbying movement that many see as a nativist reaction to the wave of Third World immigration that the country is now experiencing.

Underlying the controversy is a growing realization that the twin forces of international migration and world trade are forcing the entire country to come to grips with linguistic diversity as never before. At a time of increasing need to integrate foreign-born workers into the U.S. economy, demands are growing to teach foreign languages to U.S. natives so that they can better compete in the world marketplace.

Some educators see the two challenges as entirely separate. Others believe that the influx of speakers of other languages can serve as a resource for teaching second languages to American students. The prospect of increasing language diversity is not welcome in some quarters. But there can be little doubt that foreign languages will be heard more frequently in American classrooms in the years ahead — and not just in the Miami or Los Angeles areas.


The ease with which people and products now move across national borders has brought harsh criticism of what many leaders see as a complacently insular and monolingual U.S. educational system. Schools are being urged to play catch-up ball in developing the capacity to teach English to immigrants and foreign languages to American students.

“American education can no longer be circumscribed by national boundaries,” Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles wrote in his chairman’s overview of a Feb. 26 National Governors’ Association report that decried the nation’s lack of proficiency in foreign language teaching. “In 1989, the United States is not well prepared for international trade,” Baliles said. “We know neither languages, the cultures nor the geographic characteristics of our competitors.”

Two years earlier, in testimony before the Senate, then-Labor Secretary Bill Brock said that by the year 2000, one of every five prospective entrants into the U.S. work force is expected to be foreign-born. Unless the educational system responds to their needs, he warned, many of them will be “prevented from getting jobs or moving to better jobs by their lack of competency in reading, writing and speaking English” and other necessary skills.

The dimensions of the problem could be staggering. As many as 9.5 million-16.1 million immigrants, including their children, are likely to be added to the U.S. population by the end of this century, according to a 1986 Labor Department report entitled “Demographics as Destiny: The U.S. Work Force in the Year 2000.”

The report, prepared by the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis (Ind.)-based think tank, said that “even under the more conservative assumptions, both the Hispanic and Asian populations are likely to double — to 30 million and 10 million — by the year 2000. As they have in the past, most of these new residents will cluster in the cities and states where they are concentrated today. California, for example, is likely to be almost half Hispanic or Asian-origin by the year 2000.”

The Hudson Institute researchers argued that “over the long run” the areas absorbing immigrants will benefit economically from “the comparative surfeit of young workers.” But they warn that “immigration has always triggered negative emotional reactions from natives, and the current concerns with ‘the loss of control’ over U.S. borders is continuing this tradition.”

In particular, the study warned that “one likely outcome of the anti-immigrant emotions will be greater divisions between Hispanics and blacks. As the labor market experience of Hispanics and blacks diverges, the unity of interest that currently appears to unite these groups may crumble.”

In the view of the Governors’ Association, ill will between immigrant groups and native-born Americans will be less likely if the nation’s educational establishment treats cultural diversity as a positive value. “An increased emphasis on inter=national education in schools and colleges will help everyone understand and interact with their neighbors, classmates and co-workers,” the governors’ report argued.

Of foremost interest to the governors, however, is the challenge of international business competition. In his overview to the report, Baliles asked: “How are we to sell our products in a global economy when we neglect to learn the language of the customer? How are we to open overseas markets when other cultures are only dimly understood? How are our firms to provide international leadership when our schools are producing insular students?”

The governors’ report accused American schools of beginning foreign language instruction too late, generally in high school, and then using “outdated methods with little emphasis on speaking and listening skills.” By contrast, the report said, “children in other countries begin to learn a second language in elementary school.”

In New York, where the state Board of Regents began requiring second-language instruction in public elementary schools in 1984, attention is now being focused on using students who speak foreign languages to help American students learn a second language. In several communities in the state that have received concentrations of emigres from the Soviet Union over the past year, the potential exists for two-way bilingual programs that teach Russian to U.S. students and English to the Soviet youths. On the West Coast, two-way English-Chinese programs are being discussed.

Last fall, a task force on second-language requirements urged the regents to stick to their guns, even though the foreign language requirement has come under fire. “Second-language study is not just for the college-bound or just for bright students or just for the language-talented,” task force members said. “All can succeed.”

To underscore the point, the report noted that “in China, the USSR and Japan, the three nations that surely will most influence our country in the decades ahead, . . . all students study a second language, usually English.” It said it was a “national tragedy” that “fewer than one-half of 1 per cent” of American public school pupils study Chinese, Russian or Japanese.

The report emphasized the opportunity presented by students from other lands. “The native-language skills of children from non-English-speaking backgrounds should be nurtured and used effectively by schools to strengthen cultural understanding, student self-esteem and second-language proficiency,” the regents’ report said.


The most obvious effect of the current wave of immigration — the largest this country has absorbed since the early days of this century — is racial. From 1900-80, the nonwhite share of the U.S. population increased from 12.3 per cent to 16.9 per cent. By the end of the century, demographers predict, it will reach 33 per cent.

But the impact of immigration that lends itself most readily to respectable political debate is language. The recent increase in non-English-speaking residents and in business enterprises and churches marked by foreign-language signs has been a highly visible phenomenon across the country.

Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett apparently touched a sensitive nerve when he delivered a speech in 1985 charging that the goal of teaching English to immigrants was being subverted. Bennett had decided to make a political foot-ball of bilingual education. And he kicked it with great gusto.

In his headline-grabbing remarks, Bennett declared that the federal bilingual program enacted in 1968 had failed. In particular, he attacked the notion that teachers conversant in their students’ native languages are best-equipped to help them learn English. Program officials, he said, had “lost sight of the goal of learning English” and replaced it with an emphasis on “enhancing students’ knowledge of their native language and culture.”

Bennett cited criticism that the “original purposes” of the 1968 Bilingual Education Act had been “perverted and politicized.” And he added his own stern warning that “a sense of cultural pride cannot come at the price of proficiency in English, our common language.”

Bennett’s words pumped steam into a lobbying movement that subsequently sponsored successful ballot initiatives making English the “official language” in Arizona, California, Colorado and Florida. Those referendum campaigns have played upon fears that the United States may someday be confronted by a Hispanic separatist movement.

Hispanic political activists, after all, have been among the strongest supporters of native-language-based bilingual education. So too, for that matter, have Asian-American groups. In fact, the 1974 Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols, which established bilingual education as a civil right, was brought on behalf of children of chinese ancestry in San Francisco.

At an April 13 colloquium sponsored by U.S. English, founded in 1983 with the help of former Sen. S. I. (Sam) Hayakawa, R-Calif., the concerns Bennett stirred up were given a full airing. Massachusetts bilingual educator Rosalie Pedalino Porter delivered a paper asserting that “bilingual education is part of a political movement for Latino equality, power and influence in American society.”

Porter noted that “the original impulse for bilingual education” came from Hispanics and that 80 per cent of the children initially enrolled spoke Spanish. “However, it is represented as an education program that will produce superior achievement for all language-minority children,” she complained. Porter also likened native-language instruction to “the promotion of linguistic and cultural separatism” and suggested that its rationale is not necessarily “effective second-language learning,” but could include such motives as promoting “political hegemony and control by ethnic leaders.”

P. George Tryfiates, executive director of English First, an organization formed in 1986 to engage in direct-mail fund raising and grass-roots lobbying, echoed Porter’s concerns about preferential treatment for politically influential language minorities. Meeting with Texas legislators on May 9, Tryfiates said that adoption of English as the official language of government “gives a level playing field for all — not just some non-English-speaking immigrants.”

English First, according to Tryfiates, has 250,000 members, most of whom have responded to mailings that request donations ranging from $ 20 to $ 250 or more. Among the printed materials that it distributes are copies of Bennett’s 1985 speech, bound in pamphlet form. The organization was founded by Larry Pratt, a former member of the Virginia General Assembly, and shares offices in Springfield, Va., with the Gun Owners of America, another lobbying group with which Pratt is involved.

The older and more formidable U.S. English, which boasts an annual budget of $ 6 million-$ 7 million and a membership of 360,000, operates out of high-rent-district headquarters in downtown Washington. It seeks passage of an “Official English” constitutional amendment and an end to foreign-language ballots in areas with high concentrations of non-English-speakers. Although organized by John Tanton, a prominent advocate of immigration restrictions, U.S. English, as an organization, does not take positions on immigration issues.

But last year, when an immigration reform proposal was introduced containing a provision to give preference to those who already speak English, U.S. English couldn’t resist. A March 1988 letter from Linda Chavez, who since has resigned as the group’s president, applauded the provision and its primary sponsor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, who has long been associated with efforts to help Irish emigrate to the United States.

In the letter, Chavez emphasized the group’s belief that it is essential for immigrants to learn English and observed that “well-intentioned efforts to make native-language services available to immigrants in everything from education to voting may actually be impeding the full integration into their new society.”

In an interview, U.S. English’s executive director, Kathryn Bricker, said her group also believes that it is counterproductive for schools to invest scarce resources in trying to turn out students — either immigrant or native-born — who are fluent in more than one language. “The teaching of foreign languages should not be confused with bilingual education,” she said, arguing that the top federal spending priority should be teaching English.

She said that U.S. English agrees with the Governors’ Association report that foreign-language skills are needed in the international marketplace but believes it is far more urgent to focus on teaching the skills needed in the domestic workplace.

“It’s terrific for an individual to be multilingual,” Bricker said. “It’s a great benefit for purposes of understanding other cultures, for purposes of business, for purposes of travel. Americans have been correctly pegged as monolingual and not having expansive knowledge of other languages.” But she added that the children who need help most are those who don’t speak English.

Bricker also argues that an emphasis on language diversity in U.S. schools could be a step toward “a society that runs in multiple languages, [which] is a disastrous way for a nation to proceed.” And she said she thinks the proposals put before the New York State Board of Regents come perilously close to that. “Some opponents, particularly in New York state, are trying to expand what bilingual education should do,” she said.


When Bennett was replaced as Education Secretary last September by the bilingual Lauro Cavazos, it signaled a truce in the war over bilingual education. At his Senate confirmation hearing, Cavazos predecessor’s assessment that the program was a failure. “There has been a tremendous amount of success, frankly, over all in bilingual education,” he testified.

While stressing the goal of achieving English-language proficiency quickly, Cavazos extended special praise to the “fine, fine bilingual educational programs that will help people move into that mainstream as soon as possible, retaining the best parts of their own culture and their own language.”

Initially appointed by President Reagan and then asked to stay on by President Bush, Cavazos has subsequently maintained the most cautious of profiles. In the process, he has developed a reputation for pleasing words but elusive deeds.

Dade County school superintendent Fernandez, in whose district 13 per cent of the students enter school with little or no knowledge of English, recalled a Senate subcommittee hearing at which he and Cavazos both testified. “I liked everything I heard, but I haven’t seen anything to support all those things yet,” he said. Fernandez said that the goals Cavazos ticked off matched the agenda of his school district. “I had no problem with his testimony,” the Florida superintendent said. “What I do have a problem with is that so far, it seems that it is more rhetoric than anything else.”

Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National council of La Raza, expressed optimism about the eventual direction of Cavazos’s leadership but conceded that the Secretary, after nine months on the job, has not demonstrated that he is in charge. “He came in [at the end of Reagan’s term] with no guarantee of continuity. He has had to learn the bureaucracy. It takes a little time,” he said.

As a Hispanic activist who felt the last of Bennett’s bilingual-bashing, Yzaguirre sees Cavazos as a welcome change. “His rhetoric and his public pronouncements are very good,” he said. “We find him very supportive of our views, but the problem seems to be that the bureaucracy has kept on going in the direction [set previously]. He has not put his own imprint on the policy yet.”

Indeed, the office responsible for dispensing the department’s $ 200 million a year in funds for bilingual education programs remains under the supervision of an acting director, Alicia Coro, whom Bennett had appointed. Cavazos on May 12 named a replacement, Rita Esquivel, a California school administrator, who will come on board in August.

In the meantime, there has been controversy over the budgeting of grants for so-called alternative programs that do not use native-language teaching. When Congress reauthorized the Bilingual Education Act last year, it raised the cap for such grants to 25 per cent of the funds to be dispensed, with an understanding that awards would be made primarily on the basis of the quality of the applications.

In March, charges were leveled that the Education Department was preparing to approve grants for alternative programs that had received lower evaluation scores than some of the native-language teaching proposals that they were going to be turned down. Coro, in a May 3 interview, steadfastly maintained that no favoritism was being shown toward the alternative programs. The department’s position, she said, is that it is up to the school districts to determine which teaching methods best fit their needs and their resources.

New regulations aimed at steering funds to language minorities who had not previously been served by bilingual education grants also stirred a fuss. “There has been a lot of controversy about this,” Coro acknowledged. “In places like South Florida, where there is an influx of Nicaraguan children, and in California, where there is a constant stream of traffic from the Latin American countries, they still have children coming in speaking Spanish.” She said the department would address those concerns in the near future.


Cavazos is apparently not eager to get involved in the bilingual education controversy. A month-long effort by National Journal to get the Secretary to sit down and discuss the language-teaching challenges facing American schools failed. Coro was made available immediately. Three weeks later, an interview with Cavazos was scheduled, then postponed and finally canceled with less than two hour’s notice. The reason, said Cavazo’s spokesman, Mahlon G. Anderson, was that Cavazos had decided not to come in till Midday, requiring that “his entire morning schedule be scrubbed.” Anderson said he did not know when it could be rescheduled.

Cavazos had earlier turned down a May 12 invitation to address the annual conference of the National Association for Bilingual Education in Miami because it conflicted with his 10-day, coast-to-coast trip to deliver a series of commencement addresses.

Instead, Cavazos sent a videotaped message to the conference in which he spoke of his boyhood experiences in South Texas. “Those were the days of the ‘sink-or-swim’ approach to learning English,” he said on the tape. “Some of the kids sank — they became discouraged and dropped out, never acquiring a working knowledge of English. A few, like me, were more fortunate.”

The Secretary’s taped message included an assurance, which drew applause, that “the sink-or-swim days of learning English are over, and they must never be allowed to come back.” He also made it clear, however, that he does not wish to get involved in the pedagogical debate over bilingual teaching methods.

“What method should we use to teach English?” Cavazos asked on the tape. “That is not a question that I can or should answer. I have methodology to the experts, and local decisions to the local decision makers, including parents and teachers.”

Cavazos also used his videotaped presentation to introduce Esquivel, the Education Department’s new director of bilingual education. According to James J. Lyons, executive director of the bilingual educators’ association, the choice of Esquivel was enthusiastically received by the organization’s members.

Esquivel, in an interview at the convention, said she hopes bilingual education can be depoliticized. “What I would like to say to the American people is that they do not need to fear bilingual education, that the primary purpose and goal of bilingual education is to teach a child English. My sense is that there is fear because they don’t understand that.”

She added that the desire on the part of many immigrants, especially Hispanics, “to also maintain their culture and their language and their music does not necessarily mean that they do not value the American way of life and that they are not proud to be here. First of all, they came here by choice, and that says a lot.”

Esquivel said that the referendum campaigns to have English declared the official language send a negative message to immigrant children. “What comes to mind is thinking that what is spoken at their home isn’t as good as something else,” she said. “And that can be damaging to a child.”

“What I am interested in is the children once they get to school,” Esquivel said. “What the parents are, how they got here, does not matter. They are going to be here forever, and they are going to be our work force. And I’m interested in having the best work force our country can produce.”

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