Carlos Guerra | My San Antonio.com
July 21, 2009
Don't let ideologues more interested in wedge politics than in educating Texas kids hijack our language instruction programs for political ends.
The fact is that not even immigrants dispute that English is necessary. And if learning other languages were so easy, wouldn't many more Americans be, at least, bilingual?
The real issue is that many children — most, U.S. citizens — start school without the English proficiency needed to succeed at their grade level.
I recently recalled that my parents didn't speak English to me until a few months before I started school to give me a solid foundation in Spanish, upon which I could build my English.
So, by the fall, I could answer most questions that a first-grader would be asked in English.
But like all other Spanish-speaking kids in Robstown, I was sent to “low first grade,” where most kids spent a year trying to learn English from teachers who spoke no Spanish.
Then, they would go to “high first grade” for another year, so by year three, they were a year behind their age-mates. Luckily, my limited English — and my parents' daily counseling — got me promoted in three days.
But even in high first grade, 7-year-olds were routinely disciplined for communicating in the only language they really knew.
Texas finally got bilingual education in 1974, but only as a more humane way to teach English — using the child's first tongue.
Language instruction has developed immensely since then, and its results have been closely studied.
But xenophobes are playing on fears to get bilingual instruction replaced with English-immersion programs.
Iliana Alanis left banking to become a bilingual teacher and, after earning a Ph.D., got a faculty job at UTSA's graduate school.
“It was just something I wanted to do,” she says.
“But the distinction between learning a language and learning is important,” she says. “To many, it doesn't make sense that the best way to learn more English is to learn more Spanish because they don't understand how understanding transfers from one language to another.”
She also notes that in Texas, bilingual education varies widely. Some schools teach English using children's first tongue for one year, others for five; and some incorporate “one-way” and “two-way bilingual models” in which English-speakers learn Spanish and Spanish-speakers learn English.
All of these methods have been evaluated closely. The most extensive of these assessments were conducted by George Mason University researchers who tracked 210,054 students.
They clearly concluded, Alanis points out, that students given dual-language, two-way instruction over five years performed best over the long term. And it is easy to see why.
“When you have the two (language) groups together, they learn from each other and they model for each other because children learn a language to interact with other children,” she says. “And for them, it's a pretty safe place because they're talking to each other and they don't worry about making mistakes.” Or being ostracized.