Ron Unz’s English for the Children campaign has a new Colorado incarnation. It hopes to put on next year’s ballot an initiative that will sharply curtail the practice of segregating Hispanic children in Spanish-speaking school enclaves for years on end. Passage would open wider the doors to success for Colorado’s large Hispanic population.

The theory underlying what’s called “transitional bilingual education” is that children whose English proficiency is limited should be taught most subjects in their native language while they gradually learn English.

There’s nothing about the theory that specifically refers to Spanish; it’s just that there are rarely enough children speaking any other language to justify and sustain a bilingual establishment willing to fight to the death to defend its perquisites and sinecures, so other children escape.

It’s a plausible enough theory, on its face. Parents, especially immigrant parents whose English is not good and whose own education is limited, are likely to accept it when they are assured by school professionals that it is true.

But empirically it turns out to be wrong. Children can languish in these programs for years, socially and culturally isolated, and when they do shift to all-English classes they are far behind.

Learning that “freezing point” is the English term for punto de congelacion isn’t hard in itself; but there are thousands of such specialized academic terms children learn in school. Linguist Steven Pinker estimates that the average high school graduate knows 60,000 words, and children in extended bilingual programs have to learn them all twice. Many simply don’t. Many drop out.

The Cadillac — no, it’s the private Gulfstream — of bilingual education is dual-language immersion, in which half of each day’s classes are in English and half in another language. The fortunate children in these schools are true bilinguals by the end of elementary school. But it’s expensive, and sometimes difficult to attract the right mix of children.

Denver, after much conflict, has adopted a three-year bilingual plan for Hispanic students, but even three years is too long. Supporters of long-term bilingual programs cite research that it takes five to seven years to perfect a new language, but they fail to distinguish between receptive skills (listening and reading) and production skills (speaking and writing). Children have a constitutional right to “an education they can understand,” the U.S. Supreme Court said, but a year, perhaps a semester, of intensive instruction in English is plenty to ensure that. The final polish on prepositions and articles may take years, but its absence doesn’t inhibit learning.

My ex-husband Arthur adopted the daughter of his second wife, who is Chinese, and they brought the child to live with them in the United States the summer she was 7. When I met her, around Christmas of the same year, I told her I’d heard she was the best math student in the second-grade.

Turning to her mother, she asked suspiciously, “How does she know that?” And as the rest of the conversation proved, she already spoke fluent, colloquial, unaccented English and excelled in school. In four months.

No one proposed that she go into three years of transitional Chinese classes — even if such a thing had been available in outstate Minnesota her parents wouldn’t have allowed it — but few realize that it makes no more sense to impose such a regimen on Spanish-speaking children.

This is no English-language chauvinism; it is a consequence of the general principle that people who move to a country where the language is different from the one they speak ought to commit themselves to learning the new one, primarily for their own benefit, and their children’s. And the longer they plan to stay, the more important it is.

When Arthur and I spent a sabbatical year in Zurich, Switzerland, we prepared by studying German before we left, and while there we deliberately chose to listen to German-language radio and to subscribe to the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper (which we could read pretty well by the end of the year). Later, preparing to go to China, we took courses in Chinese and enrolled our son, then 15, in a Chinese-immersion program at the Shanghai university where I taught.

California passed a bilingual education intitiative in 1998, and the dire predictions of opponents happily failed to come true. In fact, test scores rose for Hispanic children. If that’s not proof that such programs are neither necessary nor beneficial, at least it shifts the burden of proof who those who claim they are. Arizona approved a similar initiative in 2000. One state at a time, the doors to success are being forced open.

Linda Seebach is an editorial writer for the News. She can be reached by telephone at (303)892-2519 or by e-mail at [email protected]



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