THERE are lessons for Singapore in the resounding victory of California’s Proposition 227, which not only abolishes the handicap of bilingual education but also suggests how children whose first language is not English can achieve success at school.
For Singapore, this has a two-fold message.
Dr Sharon Siddique drew attention to the first by stressing in an Institute of Policy Studies report that “the importance of the use of the English language in multi-racial communication cannot be over-estimated.” It is the means of individual and community advance, as well as of inter-ethnic harmony.
What the language does for communities it can also do for nations -and this is the second point.
By 2000, some 1,000 million people will use English, either as the mother tongue or as the second language. Mastery of English is, therefore, essential to remain plugged into global business and commerce.
Proposition 227 requires California public schools to teach only in English. Students without any English will take a one-year crash course in the language before joining mainstream classes.
Silicon Valley software tycoon Ron Unz, who sponsored the measure, believes that now, “all the children in the state will be taught to read, write and speak English as quickly as possible, which is what their parents want and what they need to succeed in our society”.
He took the plunge after Spanish-speaking parents boycotted a Los Angeles school in 1996 until it agreed to teach their children to read and write in English.
They had realised that linguistic chauvinism had robbed the already poor of the chance of making good. It has strengthened ghettos like Koreatown in Los Angeles, and Miami’s Little Havana and Little Haiti.
The National Hispanic Leadership (NHLA), which claims to champion the cause of 27 million people, does not deny this. It says it is motivated only by the ” continuing quest for educational equity and excellence”. BILINGUAL EDUCATION NOT PANACEA
The aim was supposedly realised in 1967 when Mr Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, repealed the state’s 19th-century English-only education code so that students are now taught most subjects in the mother tongue, and expected to gradually ease into English.
It has not worked. The NHLA admits that “bilingual education is not a panacea” in itself, and that it must be implemented properly.
Though the US spent US$ 12 billion (S$ 20 billion) on bilingual schooling in 1994, the shortage of teachers compounded the effects of a built-in flaw that enables only the brightest to succeed, allowing others to lag behind, thus creating a huge and handicapped Latino underclass.
Of course, no situation is in stark black and white. The NHLA points out that only half of California’s Hispanic youths aged 18 to 24 could complete the eighth grade when teaching was only in English.
Only 30 per cent of the 1.4 million California students (out of 5.6 million) who are poor in English are enrolled for bilingual education.
The Hispanic dropout rate of 5.6 per cent is still 1 per cent lower than the African-American.
Unfortunately, education has become entangled in the wider politics of a country that has 323 different languages but none that is constitutionally official, while only about 15 per cent of its citizens are of English origin.
While Washington lobbyists demanded official status for English, and Hispanics complained of cultural deprivation, the Republicans took fright at Canada’s experience in Quebec, and the Democrats continued to court the immigrant vote.
English-only laws in about 25 states from Alabama in the south to Montana in the north and Hawaii in the west mean that no other language can be used when dealing with government departments. But California allows driving tests to be taken in 35 languages.
The NHLA says the Unz measure, which has been challenged in court, will deny the same educational opportunities to all children.
But the question is: Is token bilingualism’s proven counter-productiveness better than a year’s cramming which might, admittedly, be too short a period to master a foreign language?
Proposition 227 challenges the education authorities to create a level playing field. It also challenges Hispanic parents, teachers and students to make the most of the great hurly-burly of American life.
No less than 62 per cent of registered Latino voters would not have supported the Unz initiative if they had not been convinced that it could deliver.
They must not be disappointed. (The writer is an editorial consultant with The Straits Times.)