Friday, December 29, 2017

Bilingual Education and Its Discontents

America has a long history of bilingual education and language education in general. Alas, we're the worst language learners in the world. There are good reasons for that, primary being the very large size of our mostly monolingual country. You can go anywhere, coast to coast, and if you speak English you're good 99% of the time.

Of course Spanish has defied the odds and held on in a major way. 20% of Americans speak Spanish. It's the second language I chose, and it's the one I'd generally recommend for an American kid. After all, you can go out and use it in lots of places with little effort. I was in a Peruvian restaurant last night and used Spanish. The servers recognized my accent and answered in English, but at least I tried.

We've had failures in teaching language. I know, because I was one of them. I was identified as having language ability in elementary school and selected to take Spanish early, in 7th grade. Imagine that--we know well that the younger you are, the better your language ability is, and my district thought 7th grade was early. I was placed in something called a language lab, where we used an audio-lingual approach and listened to tapes. We memorized dialogues like parrots and learned a song about the Puerto Rican flag. It was largely a waste of time, and I spent three years learning very little. (When I was older I spent time in Mexico and learned a little more.)

Then there's bilingual education. Bi suggests two, but I've been working in city schools since 1984, and I've noted many, many programs that taught in L1 only. In fact, my niece arrived from Colombia and was placed in a "bilingual" class. She was six years old. I would bring her to a playground in Jackson Heights and watch her struggle to communicate with English-speaking children. I asked her if they were teaching her English in school and she said no.

I went to her school with her mom, and was met by a very formidable school secretary. The secretary told me that it was better for her to stay in that class. She had a lot of experience, she said, and knew about these things. I told her, with all due respect, that I was not all that interested in her opinion. She said this was they way they'd always done it. I told her I was with the girl's mother, and that she had a legal obligation to respect her wishes. At that, the principal walked out of her office and accommodated our request.

My 6-year-old niece was moved into an ESL class, where she was with English learners who spoke multiple languages. The new class was conducted entirely in English and she acquired it quickly. She's now in her 20s and speaks perfect English. She'd have gotten there anyway, but placing her in a class where English was used made that happen a little more quickly. I don't oppose bilingual education, but that wasn't what my niece was getting.

Now there's something called dual-language education. I know a little bit about that. It's actually what bilingual education was supposed to be. You take half speakers of a foreign language, half of English, mix them all together and teach them 50/50. The desired effect is a win-win, in which all students acquire both languages.

We adopted our daughter from Colombia and watched her reject Spanish as she acquired English from Elmo and the Teletubbies. Though I spoke to her in English and my wife spoke Spanish, we made the egregious error of accepting English responses all the time. (I should have known better.) Thus, though my daughter had great passive understanding of Spanish, she spoke only English. In Freeport, where we live, there's a very good dual language program. We got her in for first grade and she recovered a whole lot of Spanish. It's a great thing to do if you have the population to support it.

Now it looks like certain areas have an issue, to wit, that the foreign speakers are moving out, leaving a bunch of monolingual white people to maintain dual language programs. I guess when rents go up and newcomers can't afford to stay, that's one side effect. Personally, I get the feeling that Trump and the GOP would like all of us to move out, maybe onto fishing boats, while only hedge fund managers, CEOs, and US Senators remain on the mainland.

Actually, our newcomers are a great resource. It's too bad that troglodytes like Trump and his followers see them as a threat. We can work with them and make this a win-win. Alternatively, we can leave our heads firmly parked in the sand and salute the flag while Trumpies screw us left and right. For people with open minds, real bilingual education works two ways and benefits all. As for Trump and his fellow autocrats, France used the guillotine to turn them around. This notwithstanding, even though Trump demanded the death penalty for innocent Americans, I don't believe in capital punishment.

I hope we can dump him and his ilk ASAP. Then we can embrace the diversity of our potentially great nation rather than deluding ourselves that we're somehow gonna turn it into a 1950s style black and white Donna Reed Show that's all white and no black.
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