Americans Forget History When They Blast Bilingual Education

A common language binds a people together. That’s a simple fact that cannot be denied.

I don’t know of anyone – immigrant or not – who doesn’t agree that without knowledge of English you can’t get ahead in America. Certainly, I’m an example of someone who learned English as a second language and prospered because of it.

The irony is, I also know older Spanish-speaking immigrants who have lived here as long as 30 years speaking very little English, yet they live quite comfortably.

How’s that?

Easy, they have become entrepreneurs who sell their wares to their own immigrant communities.

This type of entrepreneurial spirit isn’t some 20th century exception to the American rule of assimilation. It is, in fact, the natural course of American history. From the Little Italy enclaves to the Chinatowns to the German and Polish neighborhoods and beyond, newly arrived immigrants throughout our history found solace in speaking – and doing business in – their native language.

Americans rewrite history when they insist that immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries got off the boat and learned English by simply refusing to speak their native tongues. Yes, there were – and still are – those who refused to speak anything other than English, but the majority hung on to their native languages and cultures for at least one generation.

Nor was bilingual education a 1960s invention. There were bilingual education courses offered in New York and other port cities that had large numbers of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. In parts of Pennsylvania and the Midwest, bilingual German-English instruction was very popular, until World War I soured Americans on anything German.

Presidential aspirant Bob Dole tells us that Congress must pass a law making English the official U.S. language, and most Americans cheer him on. Personally, I believe you don’t need a law to state the obvious. What bothers me is that some people want to use that official designation to deny people who want to learn English the right tools to do it quickly.

The threat isn’t having a law that states English is the official language. The threat for new immigrants is that such a law might be used to deny children bilingual instruction that would help them learn English while keeping up with math, science and other courses. That seems to be the not-so-hidden agenda behind the official English movement.

Granted, a few bilingual education programs have received a deservedly bad rap because they have become bureaucratic monoliths that have failed.

New York City is a good example of how a well-intentioned program can turn into an ineffectual one. A recent study revealed that as many as 75 percent of New York students who enter the bilingual programs between first and third grades were still not proficient in English in three years’ time. That’s an incredible failure rate for children that young, even if you account for a child’s family’s poverty or illiteracy in their native language.

I don’t know of any such programs in Florida – certainly not in Central Florida. There are more than 14,000 children in Central Florida – about 7,000 in Orange County – who are learning English as a second language. They are not the type of bilingual education programs that foster true knowledge of two languages, as are common throughout Europe.

Instead, the intent in Central Florida, as in most of the nation, is for a teacher to use a student’s first language only as a bridge to learn English.

Ideally, bilingual education in this country would follow the European model and be open to anyone who wishes to learn another language. It’s sad that so many Americans, with such a rich smorgasbord of cultural backgrounds, seem so willing to deny themselves such a wonderful opportunity.

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