Grasping for Meaning in the Language of Success

We’ve been having these conversations for eight years now . . . halting, awkward exchanges, conducted in fragments of English and Spanish, accompanied by hand gestures and body motions when our understanding of each other’s language fails.

And it often does.

Despite a couple of junior college courses, I speak only a smattering of Spanish . . . the basic phrases that you cannot live in Southern California and not know.

And Angela–after 10 years in this country–has stopped trying to learn English, forcing me to rely on friends as translators or act out what I need her to know.

“Por que?” I ask, falling back in frustration on my tortured Spanish, “Por que tu no habla ingles?”

Her face registers shame–recognizable in any language–and her cheeks flush red.

“Es muy dificil,” she says. And her story unfolds in Spanish that she works to make me understand.

* * *

She came to California 10 years ago from El Salvador, a 40-year-old single mother with four young sons to support back home. She went to work cleaning houses and–determined to learn English–enrolled in a night school class at Van Nuys High.

For three months, she tried, attending class every night, collecting expressions and vocabulary words. “Good morning . . . How are you? . . . hair, arm, shoes.”

But her daily life offered few chances to practice her new language skills . . . and gave her little reason to worry about her deficit.

Her Van Nuys neighborhood was not much different than the town she’d left–the markets, laundries, bakeries, discount stores, all had signs in Spanish and employees who spoke her native tongue. At home she listened to Spanish-language radio and watched telenovelas on TV.

She got a full-time job keeping house for a woman from Chile who spoke Spanish to Angela and English everywhere else. Weekends she worked for American families, including mine, who didn’t seem to mind that she couldn’t speak English . . . they had nothing to say to her anyway.

She got her driver’s license, opened a checking account, bought an answering machine and recorded its greeting in Spanish.

Her boyfriend, Javier–a Mexican native she met in English class–chided her. She was smart, he said; she should learn more. He went on to become bilingual, but she was stuck in Spanish as she saw it.

The English words went in one ear and out the other, Angela told me, pointing at her ears with her fingers to explain. She understood some English, she said, but when she tried to speak it, her tongue seized up.

* * *

It is not easy learning English–with its odd spellings and irregular verbs, its slang and colloquial phrases. And it is certainly harder for a 50-year-old than a 5-year-old.

It is those 5-year-olds I think about when I ponder the choice we’re being asked to make on the future of bilingual education in this state.

There are 1.4 million children in California’s public schools who cannot speak English, and many are new immigrants who arrived here with the languages of their native lands.

But most of them are native-born–the American children of immigrant parents. They enter school labeled LEP–Limited-English Proficient–and are eligible to be taught in their native tongues. It takes most schools years to move them into classes taught in English.

They begin school speaking little or no English because they seldom hear the language at home. Their parents are too busy for language classes . . . too busy, like Angela, struggling just to survive.

At issue on Tuesday’s ballot is Proposition 227, which would abolish current bilingual programs and substitute a year of English-immersion classes for the several years of native-language instruction children now receive.

Critics brand the plan a harsh, sink-or-swim approach that will doom thousands of children to failure by stranding them in classes taught in a language they cannot understand.

Supporters say it will eliminate a patchwork of ineffective programs that have furthered political agendas but have done little to prepare Latino children for success in the workplace or college.

And I, four days from voting, am not yet sure how I feel.

I believe in the concept of bilingual education: Begin teaching children in their native language, so they will not lose ground educationally. Then move them into English in a seamless transition that honors their culture and promotes their intellect.

The problem is there have never been enough bilingual teachers to make that happen for California’s children. Only one-third of the children who qualify are receiving bilingual education. The rest struggle to learn in English or are tutored part time by bilingual aides.

And while I worry that the new law would too rigidly limit the time children have to learn the English they need, I also worry about those children who are falling further behind each day we deprive them of English instruction.

Those children born here, in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Chula Vista . . . who, like Angela, can live with only Spanish in their homes, their parks, their neighborhoods. And who need English to succeed in the world beyond.


* Sandy Banks’ column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is [email protected]

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