Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Trust power of bilingualism

“Where bilingual education has failed, it has failed mainly because affluent Americans do not want to use
their tax dollars to support a high-quality education for the poor.”

Posted on Tue, Nov. 22, 2005

From: The Tribune (San Luis Obispo)
By Johanna Rubba

Once again, Victor Davis Hanson (Commentary, Nov. 20)
pontificates beyond his area of expertise, declaring
English "our common bond" and claiming bilingual
education "eroded first-generation immigrants'
facility in English."

He also makes the typical, right-wing appeal to the
non- existent "good old days" in referring to the "the
inclusivity that once worked" prior to the 1960s.
Those were the days when blacks were restricted to
inferior schools, neighborhoods and jobs; Jews were
not welcome at posh country clubs; and more than half
the population, viz., women, were acceptable in the
workforce as long as they did not aspire to men's jobs
and accepted sexual comments and advances from their
bosses. Very inclusive.

All of these people spoke English. Blacks and whites
shared English in the South for hundreds of years, but
the bondage of slavery seems to have trumped the
"bond" of a common language. Speaking English did not
help Irish immigrants in the 19th century, who
suffered serious discrimination, in large measure
because they were Catholic. Oh, and the sovereign
against whom American colonists revolted in the 1770s
spoke ... English. Language certainly can be a common
bond, but that bond is easily overridden by divisive
forces such as racism, sexism and religious

Hanson refers to Quebec, perhaps with the strife
between French and English speakers in mind.
Language-based strife generally arises when those in
power suppress a language. The English imposed
restrictions on French in Quebec long before the
Quebecois turned the tables; strife in Sri Lanka,
eastern Turkey and apartheid in South Africa resulted
partly or mainly from language oppression (remember
the Soweto massacre, in which white South Africans
shot and killed children who were marching for the
right to be schooled in a language they understood).

Immigrants come to America because they share values
like economic opportunity, freedom of speech and
religion and a superior education for their children
(sadly, only some reap these benefits). The great
majority of immigrants want to learn English and want
their children to learn English. Historically, the
languages of immigrant groups cease to be used by
those groups by the third generation born on American
soil; the current wave is following suit.

Where bilingual education has failed, it has failed
mainly because affluent Americans do not want to use
their tax dollars to support a high-quality education
for the poor. Bilingual education comes in many forms,
and there are forms that work: resource-intensive
programs that give children five to seven years to
master English while cultivating academic proficiency
in their native language. Tell me who has better
potential for "economic security" in today's global
economy -- a monolingual person or someone literate
and fluent in two or more languages? Isn't there a
certain irony in the fact that we encourage or require
middle-class children to study a second language in
high school or college, but we do our best to
discourage bilingualism in immigrant children?

I recommend that Mr. Hanson consult the large body of
scholarly research by language experts on bilingual
education and language policy. An excellent resource
is James Crawford's substantial Web site, including
the page "Ten Common Fallacies About Bilingual
Education" (
/crawford01.html) and the site "The Effectiveness of
Bilingual Education," hosted by the Center for Applied
Linguistics, (
He will then have standing to express an opinion on
these issues.
Johanna Rubba is associate professor of linguistics at
Cal Poly.

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