WASHINGTON—Whether we like it or not, the universal language of discourse in America is and should be English. I speak from experience. My parents were immigrants and my wife is an immigrant from Argentina. I speak six languages and have spent 15 of the past 20 years living and working abroad. Bilingual education is bad policy for the United States and for its immigrants and should be discarded, once and for all, as a failed and misguided idea.
My parents came to this country from Ukraine after World War II. My father was 19, my mother 11. They spoke no English when they arrived. Today, my father’s English is perfect, although when he says words such as “European” or “worm” you can tell that he was not born in Detroit. My mother sounds like any other born and raised Midwesterner. Why? Because when they arrived they had no choice but to learn English – and learn it quickly. I have no doubt that my mother’s first year in a Catholic school must have been intimidating and difficult, and my father must have complained as he slogged through his university texts, translating them from English into German and then into Ukrainian because there were no good English-Ukrainian technical dictionaries available. But then again, no one forced them to come to the United States. Sure, signs, government forms, ballots, television, phone recordings, and school instruction in Ukrainian would have helped. But this approach would have only served to slow considerably their integration into American society, their ability to benefit from higher education, and to advance in their chosen professions.
I never once heard my parents (or my grandparents for that matter) complain about their fate. It was simply accepted that when one decided to come to the United States, the priority was to learn English – a message quite clearly reinforced by society at that time.
But times have changed. Voters in Colorado failed to pass an initiative this fall that would enforce English-only education programs. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the voters in Massachusetts passed a measure to get rid of bilingual education. Sadly, the electorate in Colorado has missed the boat.
Being thrown into an English-speaking world without a bilingual education parachute didn’t mean that my parents left their Ukrainian heritage behind or failed to pass it along to us children. At home and at church, we spoke Ukrainian and each Saturday my siblings and I were sent to a school organized and financed by the Ukrainian community in Detroit where we studied Ukrainian language, history, and culture. I went to kindergarten knowing very little English. However, by the end of the year, my parents found they were fighting an increasingly losing battle to keep me from speaking only English. A balance was struck. On public time, my world was English speaking. During the weekends and at home, it was Ukrainian. The system worked. And we became full-fledged English-speaking Americans without sacrificing our ancestral heritage.
The same can be said of my daughter Maria. She was born nine years ago when we were living in Kiev, Ukraine. When she was 4, we moved to the Czech Republic. Since at the time we spoke Spanish and Ukrainian at home, she went to the International School in Prague knowing almost no English. In fact, of her 19 classmates from almost a dozen countries, almost all spoke little or no English. But by the end of the year, these school-children – living in Prague and using Dutch, Swedish, German, or Georgian at home – could have passed for any American kid. One can only wonder how long they would have needed to learn English had bilingual education been the official philosophy at the International School in Prague.
That is not to say that Americans should not speak or learn other languages and that the rich cultural diversity of America should not be preserved.
However, we should not confuse an English-speaking country whose citizens also happen to speak other languages and maintain different cultural traditions with a bilingual society.
History is full of examples of societies being torn apart by linguistic differences and it would be a needless shame were the same to occur here. My generation, and countless generations of immigrants, was exposed to a system that encouraged assimilation and did not consider it to be a negative.
English can be learned without destroying diversity. It is a system that has worked, will continue to work, and should never have been abandoned in the first place.
* John Hewko is an attorney and recently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.