Twenty-two years ago, when I was 5, my classmate Ralph helped me learn English. It wasn’t what he said. In fact, I couldn’t understand a word he said as he pinched me mercilessly during story time, as small children sometimes do. I just sat there with tears streaming silently down my face because I didn’t know how to tell him to stop.
Several months before, in May 1976, I had returned to the United States from Taiwan, where I was sent at the age of 10 months to be raised by my grandparents for a few years. As a result, I learned Chinese as my first language, and even began kindergarten in Taiwan before suddenly finding myself on a plane crossing the Pacific.
I met Ralph and some 30 other 5 year olds when I began kindergarten again in Pacifica, a little town south of San Francisco best known for its fog. To be honest, my utter lack of English skills did not stop me from understanding a lot of messages my classmates were giving me. I certainly learned very quickly that Ralph either 1) didn’t like me, 2) wanted me to move away from him or 3) both of the above.
Still, I couldn’t say anything to him then. However, as I continued through elementary school in all-English classes, words just seemed to stick in my mind. My parents encouraged in me a love of reading that rapidly expanded my vocabulary and grammar skills, and while still in elementary school, I was reading and writing above grade level. By high school, I was far more comfortable with my verbal skills than with my math or science aptitude.
Advocates of native-language instruction, which has been commonly and often purposefully mislabeled “bilingual education,” no doubt would cal my experience atypical. Those advocates now defend districts — efforts to ignore laws like California’s Proposition 227 by insisting that it takes seven to 10 years to learn English fluently. Even more preposterously, they claim that younger children have a more difficult time learning languages than do adults.
For anyone who has ever been amazed by how quickly children soak up languages, or for anyone who has ever wistfully wished that they could learn as effortlessly as they did when they were younger, the academic theories behind bilingual education have provided one of the most glaring proofs of the fundamental disparity between ivory tower intellectuals and real life and common sense.
By any practical measure, “bilingual education” has been a dismal failure — one that 61 percent of California voters sought to change with this June’s passage of Proposition 227. It’s a pity that there’s still so much resistance to reform and the expressed will of the voters in many of the state’s largest urban school districts like San Francisco and Oakland. Educators there have either openly declared opposition to meaningful change or are spending scarce resources and time finding creative ways to avoid compliance.
What they still haven’t addressed is the fact that 95 of every 100 students labeled Limited English Proficient (LEP) at the beginning of the school year fail to learn enough English to transition out by the end of the school year. The fiscal cost of this failure (let alone the social and emotional cost) has been hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Perversely, school districts and teachers’ unions have had incentives to force as many children as possible into native language classes and to keep them there, because each bilingual-certified teachers got extra pay and each LEP-classified child meant more government funding.
Although native-language instruction was enormously wasteful financially, it’s truly tragic legacy lay in wasted human potential. Not surprisingly, the LEP label was stuck mostly on poor and immigrant children. Parents who wanted their children to be taught primarily in English often found it impossible to have them reasigned to mainstream classrooms, and even kids who could speak English were put in native-language programs because of Hispanic or Asian surnames.
Children really couldn’t learn or improve their English while being taught predominantly in Spanish, Chinese or the dozens of other languages spoken by California’s colorful immigrant mix. The bottom line: for decades, poor, immigrant kids have not been given an opportunity to develop the language skills they have needed to succeed in American society. Remarkably, the public interest groups that have traditionally supported immigrant rights and the rights of the poor have sided against their constituents and with the special interests that would keep them and their children down. (The Organization of Chinese Americans printed, without qualification, an article expounding on the “dangers” of eliminating so-called bilingual education because English was difficult to learn. Ironically, the article itself was printed in a English-language newsletter for Chinese Americans.)
Among some Latino groups, it seems that bilingual education itself is an end in itself to be protected at all costs. One activist at a meeting I recently attended suggested that even if Prop. 227 ultimately benefits minority children, the symbolism of bilingual education for Latinos meant that its removal would be an assault against the racial group. The activist then called on Prop. 227 supporters to “heal” those wounds. What that gentleman missed, and what California voters and parents understood, is that native-language instruction itself was the wound that needed to be healed. For too long, it has been a cancer that has drained scarce resources, created and reinforced racial divisions, and disproportionately impacted the poorest and most politically powerless in American society.
Like communism, bilingual education began with the best of intentions and failed — but it has continued to feed on support from self-interested cadres or fanatical ideologues even as it has left thousands of victims in its wake. Through the initiative process, California voters decided to excise the malignancy and to start healing the lesions by passing Prop. 227.
Already, many school districts and administrators have refused to comply with the law of the land. Fortunately, Prop. 227 includes a remedy against those educators who would willfully ignore it — a provision that allows aggrieved parents and kids to hold those officials personally liable. As a corporate lawyer, I have a professional aversion to courtrooms and lawsuits — but as an outraged citizen, I can’t wait till someone gives these modern day Bull Connors their comeuppance.