Anthropological linguistics fascinates me. How is it that the Uralic languages of northern Siberia are related to Finnish and Hungarian? And what about these Altaic language cousins—Turkish, Korean and Japanese? There is also the mystery of the ancient records, preserved in the dry climate of the Taklamakan Desert in western China, of an Indo-European people who brought their Tocharian language all that distance 5,000 years ago. When people emigrate, they bring along their primary language.
Of course people who emigrate also learn the language of the dominant culture of the place they move to. Knowledge of language is not a zero-sum-game, in which one must give up one language to learn another. Most cultures accept and even value bilingualism. In the United States, however, as part of a belief in American exceptionalism, some people think immigrants ought to give up their native languages immediately as a way to declare they are loyal Americans.
One of those believers in English-only is Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software developer who bankrolled California Proposition 227, a ballot initiative passed by voters in 1998 to ban bilingual education and prescribe that immigrant children must be immersed in all-English classes from the day they enter school. Last evening the PBS NewsHour (in partnership with Education Week) broadcast a feature story about the new Proposition 58 , that would roll back some of Prop. 227’s stringent restrictions on language instruction in California’s schools.
Corey Mitchell, in Education Week, describes California’s rethinking its English-only mandate: “Nearly 20 years after voting to restrict bilingual education in a state with more than 1 million schoolchildren who don’t speak English as their first language, California voters appear poised to reverse that ban… (V)oters will decide the fate of a statewide ballot question that would bring an end to the restrictions of Proposition 227 and close out California’s official era of English-only instruction.” Under Proposition 58, school districts themselves would decide how to provide instruction for immigrant children, “and provide any program, including the existing English-only classes, that enough families request.”
Mitchell suggests that attitudes are changing: “Enthusiasm and demand for students who can read, write, and speak in more than one language have spiked in California and elsewhere. California is also the birthplace of the seal of biliteracy, a national movement to recognize and honor high school graduates who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia now offer biliteracy seals… Besides California, only Arizona and Massachusetts have English-only mandates.”
Research documents that students who learn to read in their primary language and then transfer those skills to reading in English do better. Here is the conclusion of one study from the Center for Applied Linguistics: “These preliminary findings support the practice of providing literacy instruction in Spanish to Spanish-speaking English-language learners as a means of helping them acquire literacy skills in English. By strengthening these students’ Spanish literacy, this practice also enables them to use their native language well, enhancing their bilingual capability.”
And here is research reported by ASCD on how students acquire social and academic language: “Thomas and Collier found that English language learners who received all of their schooling in English performed extremely well in kindergarten through 3rd grade, regardless of the type of bilingual or ESL program. These students made dramatic gains in English. However, when they reached the 4th grade and moved through middle school and high school, the performance of students who had been in all-English programs, such as ESL pullouts, fell substantially. Why did this happen? Native English speakers make an average language gain of 10 months each school year. However, English language learners who had not become literate in their native language, regardless of what that native language was, only made a six- to eight-month gain per school year. As a result, the gap between native English speakers and English language learners in all-English programs widened from the 4th grade through high school (Thomas & Collier, 1997). Students in two-way bilingual immersion and developmental bilingual programs, however, reach the 50th percentile in both their native language and English by 4th or 5th grade in all subject areas. These students are able to sustain these gains in English, and in some cases they achieve even higher success than native English speakers as they move through their secondary school years.”
Last evening, the NewsHour interviewed Patricia Gandara, an expert on bilingual education and a professor at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA: “(W)e now know definitively that there are huge advantages, advantages in employment… social advantages, psychological advantages…. and cognitive advantages. It just seems to me to be such a shame that we are an immigrant country. We are blessed with this richness of languages. And to not take advantage of that, to not let our kids have that opportunity seems to me just a tremendous waste, a tremendous waste of resources.”
For generations our attitudes about language have defined us as a people—whether we accept newcomers and people we define as “the other.” The boarding schools we created for American Indian children to suppress their native language and culture epitomized some of the very worst intolerance in our nation’s history. When you look at the election returns next week, pay attention to the fate of California Proposition 58. It will tell you something about whether or not our society is becoming more tolerant.