Los Angeles—In Los Angeles, parents spend a lot of money to send their children to the Lycee Francais, so that their children will become bilingual in French and English. If well-educated, successful families are making such an effort to ensure bilingual education for their children, why has bilingual education become so controversial in California?
Because the Lycee Francais is an example of what Professor Catherine Snow at Harvard calls “elite bilingualism.” She points to a double standard whereby bilingualism is admired and sought after by groups at the upper rungs of society (for example, the United Nations International School for U.N. personnel in New York), but is denigrated and avoided for groups who are at the bottom of the social ladder, particularly if they happen to be non-white.
This double standard is nowhere more evident than in Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education measure that will be on the ballot on June 2. For example, our public high schools spend a lot of time, effort and money to teach foreign languages, with a goal of attaining the maximum bilingual skills possible; the Los Angeles United School District even has a magnet high school (Venice) devoted to foreign language instruction which includes, for example, Japanese and Russian. Yet the proponents of Proposition 227 are against bilingual language instruction when the second language happens to be English.
The real irony is that high schools are doomed to fail in attaining true bilingualism for the simple reason that their students are too old. Years of research indicates that there is a sensitive period for language learning; it ends at adolescence. After this period, languages tend to be learned without the subtleties of grammar and accent of a native speaker. Ironically, Proposition 227, if it passes, will take bilingual education away from those children who have the best chance to become truly bilingual: those that are exposed to two languages early.
These are the students whose parents speak a foreign language at home; they also include the native English speaking students enrolled in “two-way immersion” schools, such as Edison Language Academy in Santa Monica. In these exceptional public schools, there is true cross-cultural exchange and bilingual learning. Native English speakers learn to speak, read and write in Spanish (or, in some schools, Korean) alongside native Spanish (or Korean) speakers; they have the advantage of being exposed to speakers with native accents, grammar and vocabulary.
This is very different from foreign language instruction in high school, where not only the learners, but also the teachers, are disadvantaged. Most foreign language teachers are not native speakers and, as adult language learners, have imperfect accents and grammar.
In two-way immersion schools, children not only become bilingual, they also become biliterate, learning to read and write in both languages. Biliteracy is not something that a child can achieve at home, even if parents speak a foreign language. Literacy in a second language, as in the first, requires school instruction. Families have made a positive choice to place their children in two-way immersion schools because they want bilingualism and biliteracy for their children. If Proposition 227 passes on June 2, these schools will become illegal. Parents who want their children to be bilingual and biliterate in preparation for the internationalized world of the 21st century will no longer have that choice.
But if Proposition 227 passes, there will be an even more tragic effect. Many children of immigrants will lose their native language faster than their parents can learn English. At UC Berkeley, Professor Lily Wong-Fillmore has shown that children lose native language skills because of early exposure to English-only classrooms. Their parents then lose something most of us take for granted: a common language with our children. Without a common language, parents lose the ability to socialize their children; without a common language, children lose the capacity to communicate with their parents.
In my psychology classes at UCLA, I have had students burst into tears after reading Fillmore’s work; for the first time they realized why they had lost communication with their immigrant parents. Immigrant parents will never acquire perfect English; like high school students, they are too old when they start learning – and, in addition, they often have less exposure to English than their children do. Parent-child communication is critical to a child’s development. For immigrant parents, this communication will be diminished by the passage Proposition 227.
If the “English only” mandate of Proposition 227 becomes law, it will bring us close to the days only one generation ago when Native American and Latino students were forbidden to speak their native languages at school. Beginning in the 1960s, language rights became part of human rights. Everyone may not want to become bilingual. But Proposition 227 takes away that human right to choose.