Bilingual divide

More choice in education would mean less fuss over which language to use

The many Americans who grew up speaking a language other than English at home were more likely to have been enriched than hamstrung by the experience. Exposure to their ancestral language broadened their horizons without, in most cases, hindering their ability to develop a command of English and, thus, to become productive members of society.

Especially small children learn languages differently than do adults. Their brains in those early years are like sponges and are singularly adept at absorbing words and phrases, mimicking at first just the sounds and later divining what they mean.

That’s why it’s hard to make a case for so-called bilingual education -teaching kids at least in part in their or their parents’ native tongue, in most cases Spanish, even though they’re attending school in the predominantly English-speaking United States. A case can be made that such a tack is at best unnecessary in that children up to their early teens typically have a remarkable capacity to juggle two (or more) languages. And bilingual education arguably even can backfire: It delays a child’s development as an English speaker.

In that light, then, a proposal afloat to eliminate bilingual education in Colorado – affecting about 25,000 students statewide – seems sensible. As reported last week in The Gazette, a campaign is afoot for a petition drive to place such a prohibition on the state ballot.

A Washington, D.C.-based group called One Nation Indivisible and its prominent political-activist president, Linda Chavez, are behind the proposal. So is U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who represents a portion of metropolitan Denver in Congress. Their premise is that bilingual education condemns children to lives as second-class citizens, even to poverty, by robbing them of the opportunity to become immersed in English as early as possible. Their proposal would give non-English speakers one year of intense English instruction before mainstreaming them into regular classes, instead of having students learn in two languages while they gradually move into mainstream classes.

All fine and well. Only, there’s an even more fundamental concern at stake here, one that really isn’t all that different from myriad other debates over education. It is the limited opportunity for most parents to choose the tack they deem best for their kids. There’s little doubt most immigrant parents would prefer to have their children exposed to as much of the English language as possible, as soon as possible; given those parents’ own day-to-day travails, on the job, at the grocery store, etc., they know all too well the urgency of developing English fluency.

Still, what if some immigrant parents want their children to develop and retain equal ability in English and, say, Spanish – all they way through school and into adulthood? Indeed, what if native speakers of English, perhaps descended from generations of U.S. natives, wish for their children as well to be bilingual in the more reputable sense of that word? Maybe half the school day in English and half in Spanish? In French?

The only way those concerns will be met is to diversify the portfolio of the public school system to include the likes of vouchers alongside charter schools. Only when parents of all income levels are able to choose the curriculum that best reflects their values and their priorities for their own children will the tug of war over issues like bilingual education be resolved.

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