Why Not Leave It To The Kids?

Bilingual Battle

He landed in this country at the age of 4 without a word of English, and there he was recently, graduating with honors from Loyola Academy.

An immigrant kid whose family rents an apartment in a city two-flat, he attended the North Shore school on full scholarship. All the aunts and uncles were so proud they made their way from the old country or from various corners of this country to celebrate.

A debate is raging about whether immigrant children first should be taught English, then their other subjects; or whether they should be taught other subjects in their native tongue as they are more gradually introduced to English over two to three years.

California voters recently banished the gradual approach–bilingual education–in favor of immersion in the English language. The Chicago Public Schools in February put a three-year deadline on moving into all-English classes in most cases.

But that was never an issue for this graduate, and it never came up for discussion at his party. Relatives and friends laughed and reminisced in their native tongue, inside and outside, on sofas and lawn chairs. Before long, the instruments came out, old world music filled the air and the traditional dancing began.

Like many immigrant children, the graduate listens to his parents in the old language and responds to them in English. Within a year after arriving here and enrolling in a Chicago Public School he was speaking fluent English with an American accent so strong his parents would roll their eyes.

But fluency had not come easily; it required a year of total immersion in English, including a teacher who never could seem to learn how to pronounce his name correctly. “He’d come home crying,” his mother recalled.

Now, you can’t hear a trace of his original language in his voice. The switch, at least for him, has been complete; a matter of personal preference early on, he says, but now to the point where he has trouble remembering how to speak his first language at all.

But he still understands.

At the graduation party, his father asked for a beer in the native tongue, and the young man tossed him a can without missing a beat.

Many critics of bilingual education believe it handicaps students by delaying their assimilation into American society, but advocacy groups claim part of the national “English First” crusade and criticism of bilingual education comes from those who feel threatened by immigrant culture.

In the Chicago Public Schools, bilingual education is overwhelmingly a Spanish-language issue. The numbers of students who speak Polish, Arabic, Chinese and Urdu are growing, but 81 percent of bilingual students speak Spanish. The figures are similar nationwide.

Some opposition comes from the same people who feel threatened by changing neighborhoods in which new residents speak different languages and businesses post signs in different languages, say members of Hispanic groups who urged the Chicago Public Schools earlier this year not to cut back on bilingual programs.

Perhaps some people hear and see so much Spanish they get the false impression that generations of Hispanics are going through school not learning English.

Yet even the slowest grade-school age children from other countries learn English after five or six years no matter which approach they study under, educators say. Most learn it in less than three.

Even if, for some reason, immigrant parents wanted to shield their children from English, they could not prevent the classroom of the playground from teaching the adopted tongue.

Bilingual education was never an option for the newly minted graduate at the top of this story because the Chicago Public Schools require 20 students speaking the same foreign language at a school before it considers starting a bilingual classroom for them.

And you would be hard-pressed to find 20 children in all of Chicago who arrived here speaking only Irish.

But my cousin did. Ciaran came here from the “Gaelteacht,” the wild west of Ireland where less than 5 percent of the population still speak Irish (Gaelic) as their primary language. In the rest of Ireland, people study it in school and then begin to forget it.

Both sides of my family, once they entered a culture unique among Western nations for its celebration of monolingualism, jettisoned the old languages in the first generation.

I’m sure it seemed practical at the time. How could my Polish grandfather have known the value that fluency in that tongue could have had for a Chicago journalist in 1998?

My Irish grandfather might have winced at my spending a year of college in Ireland, studying the colorful, melodious and utterly impractical language that was his first–“Sure, how’s that gonna help ya make a livin’?”

Ciaran was only 4 then, and without a word of English used to show me around Brandon Creek, where legend has it that St. Brendan set sail for America long before Columbus.

Now, his English has cost him his Irish. He may miss it some day. He has the language he needs to succeed here. Had his family stayed in Ireland, he would have been bilingual like his parents.

This article takes no stand on which teaching approach is best to move immigrant schoolchildren into the mainstream. It merely seeks to put the issue in context: Relax. We’ll all be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

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