Learning English, Other Languages is Better than "English Only"

The 200 children came in all colors and sizes. They put on a show Wednesday to celebrate a language and culture that, for a majority, wasn’t their own.

But by talking and singing in Spanish, did these Orange County public school students break the law? After all, Florida’s constitution now says that English is the official language and that government can have laws and policies to reflect this.

Interestingly, there hasn’t been a rush in the Legislature or anywhere else in Florida to create laws dealing with English as the official language. That’s probably because such laws aren’t needed. With or without an amendment, everyone who lives in this country – from Puerto Ricans to Vietnamese – knows that English was, is and always will be the language that binds this country together.

Which is why I often get miffed about the brouhaha over bilingual education. Some people seem to think that if schools teach classes in a child’s native language – even if it’s only temporarily, until a child learns English – that this will splinter the old American melting pot and shatter the union.

Critics like Linda Chavez, who has led the charge for an official English-language amendment to the U.S. Constitution, claim that bilingual education only makes it harder for immigrant children to move up in the world. “No amount of ethnic pride can justify depriving children of the opportunity to succeed,” Chavez wrote recently in a magazine article.

I agree. It certainly can make it harder for children to succeed if they’re taught in a way that puts a premium on their native language at the expense of English. But most bilingual classes geared toward speakers of other languages aren’t doing this at all. Good bilingual classes are structured so that children are hearing less and less of their native language and more in English as the weeks go by. That’s how it should be, if children are to become competitive adults.

A recent study conducted for the U.S. Department of Education noted that bilingual education for kids who come from Spanish-speaking backgrounds – which is the biggest immigration group today – is working quite well. It found that students with limited proficiency in English “improved their skills in mathematics, English language and reading as fast as or faster than students in the general population.”

Another positive is that these children were spared the feelings of failure that can make kids drop out. In the past, older children who couldn’t speak English and were thrown into regular classes were frustrated that they were failing courses like math or science – courses that in their native language they excelled in. Bilingual education, especially for older children and teen-agers, is especially important then.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with bilingual education. There are. As the federal study pointed out, the quality of the teaching isn’t always what it needs to be. Some teachers spend too much time dictating to the class and don’t give students much of a chance to answer questions in English and practice their new-found skills in the majority language.

Unfortunately, the report didn’t touch on the importance of having all students learn a foreign language of their choice early on. Americans still lag behind all industrialized nations in teaching foreign languages. This is happening at the same time that this nation is falling behind in its exports and moving more and more toward an opening of trade barriers that are sure to benefit those who can communicate well with business people in other countries.

The Spanish Festival hosted by Blanker Elementary School on Wednesday is a start toward recognizing the importance of learning foreign languages early. The parents I spoke with at the festival were thrilled that their children were learning some Spanish. They saw the economic link and welcome the possibilities.

The lesson? Let’s stress English first, but never “only.”

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