Bill Clinton, meet the former Pearl Rosenberg.
Clinton, of course, is the very president who recently pronounced himself opposed to a California ballot initiative that would virtually end bilingual education.
The former Ms. Rosenberg is my mother. When she was just about 7 years old, a neighborhood kid marched her to the local public school and enrolled her in the first grade. She had been in this country maybe a month and spoke not one word of English.
This was December 1920, and the experience was either so awful or so routine that my mother can recall nothing about it. All she knows, she said in an exclusive telephone interview from her home in West Palm Beach, Fla., is that her mother — a non-English speaker ’til the day she died — was too afraid of the authorities to register her in school herself. So the neighbor, his name lost in the fog of history, substituted.
And all I know is that my mother speaks perfect English. So did her older brother and sister — and so, in my recollection, did every one of the one-time kids in the family who, terrified, took a horse and cart to Warsaw, a train to Rotterdam and the boat to the United States. Some of the older ones wound up speaking with an accent, but it was faint, more interesting than annoying. As for my mother, with just a little effort she sounded — at least to me — like an old-time telephone operator. Number, please.
Now, it is important for columnists of any age to avoid the Sam Levinson Syndrome. Levinson was a comedian whose act consisted largely of saying how good things were in the old days — including the way his parents disciplined him: Slap! So I have been trying to figure out how my mother could be all that different from the many thousands of Hispanic kids who would no longer get bilingual education under Prop 227. I’m stumped. Aside from the difference in languages, a 7-year-old is still a 7-year-old.
In fact, the White House has been oozing ambiguity on this issue. While it does not much like Prop 227, it doesn’t much like the present program, either. What it really doesn’t like, it seems, is being caught between a popular referendum (nearly 70 percent approval in a recent Los Angeles Times poll) and the organized opposition. So while it has pronounced the status quo unacceptable, it has expressed precisely the same verdict on what Prop 227 would require: one year of English immersion classes for non-English speakers under the age of 10.
Is there a better way to teach these kids? Maybe. But Clinton is representative of the sort of politician who is so beholden to teachers’ unions or special interest groups that reform is not possible. As with affirmative action, a reaction and repugnance swells up from the ground — and it is only then that someone like the president suggests a middle course. It is often too late.
As it is now, non-English-speaking students are taught in their native language — and get English instruction for about half an hour a day. Since most of those kids return to a home where English is not spoken, many of them never learn to read or write in the language of Shakespeare — not to mention of General Motors and the rest of the country’s businesses.
This is tragic for the kids and not, as some would argue, an expression of anti-immigrant sentiment. No one’s advocating any silly English-only law (of the sort recently struck down in Arizona) by which, for instance, it would be illegal for state officials to use a language other than English in the course of their official business. These laws can be an expression of both racist and xenophobic sentiment — sending a message to non-English speakers that they are not wanted.
But immersing kids in English is a different matter. It works, as generations of immigrants can testify. English fluency and literacy are absolutely essential for assimilation and success, which is why 50 percent of California’s Hispanic population supports Prop 227.
Milan Kundera, the great Czech writer, has written his most recent book, “Identity: A Novel,” in French, the language of his adopted country. Joseph Conrad started writing in his native Polish, but moved to English for such masterpieces as “Heart of Darkness.” I do not suggest that ordinary people can duplicate that feat, but for a child, learning a language is a simple thing, an amazing process as natural as a sponge soaking up water. As my mother and millions of immigrants proved, all it takes for this kind of learning to proceed is for proponents of bilingual education to get out of the way.