California is doing it again — being first.

California is always first in everything: drive-ins, freeways, smog. The ’60s arrived in California in 1958. The tax revolt, the reversal of affirmative action programs; they began in California. Californians even discovered Ronald Reagan before the rest of us did.

Some say it’s something in the water, but I think it has more to do with walking around in the sun without a hat.

The revolt du jour is centered on bilingual education. There is a proposition on the California ballot this fall that would virtually end bilingual education there. It would demand that kids who don’t speak English — a not-uncommon phenomenon in California — be given a year of English immersion instruction, then put into regular classes where English is spoken. Sink or swim.

Liberals are opposed to the proposition, seeing it as thinly disguised anti-immigrant legislation, one of a series of such laws California has passed in recent years.

Which it well may be. At present, non-English-speaking kids are taught classes in their own language, with an hour a day or so devoted to English-language instruction. Proponents say this helps keep them in school and is good for the students’ sense of self-regard. Giving these kids a crash course in English, then throwing them into a hostile environment might very well be rough on them, they say.

True, but it might also teach them English.

I recall my father’s example. When he came here from the Ukraine (they still called it the Ukraine in those days), he was 7 years old and spoke not a word of English. One of his prized (and few) possessions was a high Cossack hat made of fur. On his first day at school, at recess, a ruffian snatched the hat off his head and put it on his own.

My father went to the teacher and tried to tell her what happened. Alas, she did not speak Ukrainian. So my father took the matter into his own hands. He popped the ruffian in the nose and took his hat back.

Unfortunately, the ruffian did speak English and when he complained to the teacher, she took my father’s hat away from him and gave it to the wretched thief. My father got sent to the principal’s office for fighting.

It was a harsh lesson, but a valuable one. Through it my father learned an essential truth: If you want to make it in this country, you have to learn English. So he did and went on to become enough of a success to send his semiworthless son to college, where he learned enough English to make a living at it.

And so I say to my friends on the bilingual side of the California argument: Self-esteem doesn’t mean a damn if you can’t speak the language. Bilingual instruction makes sense only to the degree that it accelerates the mastery of English, and I suspect that’s not much. There’s no foreign-language teaching program I know about that doesn’t emphasize total immersion in the language one is trying to learn.

The Washington Post carried a story the other day that is very much on point.

It was a story on the library system in Queens, the New York City borough. It is the busiest library system in the nation, circulating 15.3 million books, tapes and videos a year. Moreover, the 1.9 million residents, on a per capita basis, check out more books than those of any other big city, more even than many wealthy suburbs.

What’s surprising about that? Well, Queens has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents of any borough in New York City; more than a third of its population is foreign-born, and nearly half speaks a language other than English at home.

The Post interviewed a Chinese immigrant mother who brings her young sons to the library twice a week and goes home with a shopping bag full of books. The mother tries to see that her children read only English-language books.

“I don’t care if they read all,” she told the Post. “Kid is kid. If they don’t like books, I bring them back and get more.”

In her spare time, she herself takes English lessons.

“If I don’t learn about American culture and speak English,” she says, “I could lose them. If they think I not understand, they not do what I say.”

That makes sense to me. And I’ll bet those kids grow up with terrific self-esteem.

I hate to admit it, but the right-wing thugs in California have finally gotten one right.

If you would like to respond to one of Don Kaul’s columns, you can e-mail him at [email protected] or write to him in care of Tribune Media Services. Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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