Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Bilingual Education Fantasy

Former Speaker of the House and possible Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, speaking to a meeting of The National Federation of Republican Women earlier today, recommended that bilingual education be abolished in the United States. In his remarks, Gingrich was quoted as saying that "The American people believe English should be the official language of the government. ... We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto."

The reaction to his remarks was what you would probably expect. Peter Zamora, co-chair of the Hispanic Education Coalition - a group which supports bilingual education - said that, "The tone of his comments were (sic) very hateful. Spanish is spoken by many individuals who do not live in the ghetto."

In spite of the fact that Mr Gingrich chose his words poorly, I believe he makes a valid point.

Proponents of bilingual education claim that it teaches students reading, arithmetic and other basic skills in their native language so they do not fall behind while mastering English. I disagree. In my opinion (and I do have a degree in Linguistics and some experience both as a student and a teacher of languages), teaching students in a language other than English only delays their mastery of the language of their adopted country. Mr Zamora claimed that research has shown that bilingual education is the best method of teaching English to non-English speakers. This is not true. Bilingual education may help some students with courses other than English, but many years of experience have clearly shown that an immersion technique is, in fact, the best way to teach a foreign language, particularly to young students at the prime age for language acquisition. I believe that bilingual education and extensive language accommodation (such as printing official documents in multiple languages) only hinder the mastery of English, and do a serious disservice to both the immigrant community and the great majority of American citizens.

The immigration crisis in the United States isn't going to go away, and endless accommodation to the specialized needs of particular language groups won't help anyone: it costs governments at all levels money that could be used for other, more important services, and it offers a security blanket to immigrants that allows them to remain comfortable on their own linguistic islands, never needing to adapt themselves to the country they expect to change for them.

Bilingual education may be necessary or useful in limited circumstances, but it is ludicrous to contend, as Mr Zamora does, that it is the best way for non-English speakers to learn the language. Education funds are limited, and would be better spent on intensive, immersion-style English classes that are of proven value.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

1 comment:

Bartholomew said...

Bilbo, I'm conservative-leaning and I'm with you on probably 95+% of important issues, but this whole language-debate thing is just dumb and is costing critical support for the conservative movement.

I'm not sure where you're from or grew up, but in Arizona and California where I hail from, Spanish if anything *is* the native tongue of communication here. It's been in pretty regular use here for quite a few centuries, in fact before they ever became part of the US, following the US-Mexican conflict, in the middle 1800's and by quite a few arrangements to keep the peace, Spanish continued with a special status right with English. It's *not* a language of outsiders coming into English-only land, it's an original here.

So providing Spanish-language instruction here isn't just convenience, it's flat-out mandatory. Anyone looking for a decent job anywhere, with government or in businesses, really has to know it-- managers and hiring staffs will laugh at you without it.

I bring this up, just b/c it's idiotic that Newt and others like him make an issue about it one way or another.

I'm actually very Republican-leaning on most issues, especially on things like the right to bear arms, taxes and standing up to terrorist states like Iran. These are things we can all agree on and, you might be surprised-- a good percentage of Spanish-speaking Latinos agree with us on these as well. A language's speakers themselves aren't "liberal" or "conservative," they go in either direction and many Latinos have a socially, fiscally, internationally conservative core, they're with us on many of the most important matters.

Which is why it's monumentally stupid for Newt and other prominent Republicans to go off on the Spanish language issue of all things, the GOP is shooting itself in the foot with this and pissing off millions of people who would otherwise support Republican causes that really *are* important.

They'll never get rid of Spanish in the Southwest, it's been entrenched there for centuries and it always will be. Making an issue out of language-- the way the pathetic French do-- is tilting at windmills, and it invites disaster.

Prominent GOP members like Newt Gingrich just need to let the language issue go, it does nothing but incense the very people who can be most valuable to fighting for conservative causes. An awful lot of Latinos I've met who are otherwise strongly supportive of the right to bear arms and the war on terror-- even to the point of sending their kids to fight in Iraq-- are so angered by the GOP's anti-Spanish campaign, this perceived attack on centuries of culture here, that they vote Democratic despite their disgust with Democratic positions otherwise.

We have to prioritize, and fretting about language the way the French do is just dumb. People will speak the language they want to speak, and in the Southwest, Spanish is permanent.

In any case, do keep up the good work, you have the support of many of us out there for what you're doing.