Making sense of Prop. 227

Circuit court's ruling reveals the unseemly side of bilingual law

You can now be sued for speaking Spanish. Last week the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that teachers in California public schools may be sued if they “willfully and repeatedly” speak a language other than English in the classroom. The court thereby upheld the key enforcement provision of Proposition 227, which in 1998 all but eliminated bilingual education from the state’s public schools.

So far, nobody has been sued. Yet the possibility that a teacher can be sued for speaking Spanish — or Korean or French or whatever other language — illustrates the ugliness of Proposition 227. Once California voters made it law, there was going to have to be an enforcement mechanism of some kind, be it that a teacher got fired or taken to court. Either way, passage of 227 inevitably meant that the mere act of speaking a language that was not English would become a punishable offense.

There could have been a better way. And there is still, for schools in states that have not banned bilingual education. What happened in California three years ago and in Arizona last year was that two language extremes went to war, blasting to smithereens all logic and common sense.

On one side, there is a bilingual-education establishment that has it exactly backward. Its dominant theory is that the younger the child, the more in need he or she is of bilingual education.

Pro-bilingual extremists insist that children should first master their native language before being taught English, with the result that children are kept in school for years without mastering English, even though they could do so easily.

It’s one reason why anti-bilingual proposals seem so popular. The pro-bilingual education forces did it to themselves.

Their entire concept is utter nonsense. Kids in elementary school soak up a new language like a sponge soaks up water. That’s not to say grammar-school students who don’t speak English can just be left alone to learn for themselves, since there will always be a transition period during which they will need to formally be taught the English language. But the transition period will be short at that age.

I saw this with my own eyes growing up. In fact, I experienced it myself: I entered school in fifth grade knowing no English, and by sixth grade I was pretty much on a par with native English-speakers. I was not alone. Other classmates who did not know English learned just as rapidly.

But it’s not that simple. The problem comes with adolescence. Whatever hormones fire up that make teen-agers begin shaving or start wearing bras also change the language-learning circuitry of the brain. Numerous studies have shown that when puberty hits, the ability to learn a new language easily is lost.

Again, something I saw myself. Some in my high-school graduation class could barely speak English. They had entered the school system when they were freshmen, as puberty was hitting, and just never caught up.

Which is what the other side, the anti-bilingual-ed extremists, willfully ignores. High-schoolers should of course be taught English, but they should also be taught subjects like math or history in their own language so they do not fall behind while they learn English. Otherwise you have immigrant kids sitting in a chemistry class taught in a language they do not know.

Hard to think of a more pointless way to spend the school day. Even Ron Unz agrees. The man behind the California and Arizona anti-bilingual movements wrote to me during the height of the Proposition 227 fight acknowledging that, “For a high-school-age student, I think bilingual education may make a lot of sense.”

Yet such an acknowledgment is not a part of the Unz-backed anti-bilingual laws in Arizona or California.

Voters simply threw out bilingual education, without stopping to consider that high school students actually need it.

Unz has been trying to take his show to other states, including Colorado, Massachusetts and New York. People there ought to keep in mind what he told me, even if he won’t.

Roger Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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