Bilingual Blues

This is not the way your grandfather learned English

And Keegan fires back, "Where the hell are we going to find institutions that prepare teachers for that kind of job?"

She doesn't think the colleges are preparing them, or for that matter, even paying attention to how poorly LEP kids perform as compared to the population as a whole.

"If somebody stands up and says this program is succeeding," she says, "and I'm looking at the 26th percentile--if it were my child, she's not succeeding. I at least want somebody to say that's not good enough."

Add to the debate a healthy dose of outright xenophobia. Even while humping the international benefits of the NAFTA treaty, the State of Arizona was trying to keep its "English Only" law from being knocked down by the court. English-only and antibilingual education bills have been floated in Congress. A piece of sample legislation written by a think tank that is popular among Republicans even makes it illegal to be a college professor or a graduate-student teaching assistant if you have a hard-to-decipher foreign accent.

And most persistent, many Anglos cling to a nostalgic fantasy about how much more efficiently the melting pot worked in our grandfather's day.

"By the way, I'm the granddaughter of an immigrant," says Representative Laura Knaperek, who sponsored the bilingual education reform bill that just passed in the House of Representatives. "My grandfather came from Italy. My father cannot speak Italian; he can understand a little bit of it. We were never taught Italian, I'm sorry to say, but my grandfather felt strongly that when you came to this country you learned the ways here immediately to be successful."

And by the way, how far did grandfather go in school?
"My grandfather didn't go to school," Knaperek says.

Newspaper and magazine articles about bilingual education unleash torrents of letters that begin, "My grandfather came here from Germany/Poland/Italy/Russia, and he did great because he wanted to be an American, and he didn't have bilingual education."

But he might have. Public school bilingual education programs in the United States to educate German- or Czech-speaking American children date back to the 1830s. The word "kindergarten" comes from such schools, which proliferated in Ohio and New York and Texas and Pennsylvania. As World War I approached, the programs were swept away by xenophobia and anti-German sentiment.

Whether or not gramps had access to such schools--or subsequent schools in Polish or Portuguese or the like--the government wasn't going to make him go. He might have worked as a tailor or a janitor or a factory worker to provide for his family for 50 years without losing his accent or his foreigner diction.

Gramps might not have done as well as his offspring remember.
In the early 1900s, when the United States had its highest proportion of immigrants to natives, Jewish immigrant children from Europe dropped out of school in record numbers. In the old days, it was simple: If you didn't learn English, it was your own problem. With universal education, it became the school's problem. By the 1930s, only 11 percent of immigrant Italian children graduated from high school in New York City; as a result, the city schools created special-ed programs to cope with immigrant education needs.

"The reason we have bilingual education is because English-only programs were a disaster," says Leonard Basurto, director of bilingual education for the Tucson Unified School District.

The Bilingual Education Act, Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968, required that schools provide for economically disadvantaged, language-minority children, whether through federal funds or federally mandated funds raised in the district. Six years later, in a case known as Lau v. Nichols, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under the Civil Rights Act, school districts had to provide programs to help students overcome language barriers. That decision settled a class action suit filed by Chinese-speaking students in San Francisco.

How long does it take to learn a second language? It could take a year, or it could take a lifetime. If it were easy to do, then more people would do it. And though you don't actually need a language to think, once you learn one, it's impossible to think without it. Like some selfish computer operating system, it permeates every thought process and tangles itself into emotion and identity.

Language is not a list of words but the way that those words are arranged in sequence to express past and present, yes and no and an unlimited series of ideas and emotions. Infants start absorbing that syntax almost as soon as they are born.

There is a school of thought suggesting that the human brain presents a window of opportunity for language learning, an evolutionary throwback to an era when an individual who didn't learn a language might not survive to adulthood. Brains are expensive organs for a body to maintain; once the task is completed, the brain cells involved may disappear or go on to other more age-specific tasks--which may explain why older children and adults have such difficulty learning second languages.

Furthermore, the second language inevitably gets processed through the first, causing interferences and misassumptions in how the second should be strung together. The sounds of the first language may even settle into the mouth and tongue and face of its speaker. Many foreigners can spend 50 years in a country and never lose a thick accent and foreign way of putting words together.

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