California’s New Embrace of Bilingual Education: An Academic and a Personal Affirmation

Patricia Gandara, the Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, explains the technical significance of Californians’ rejection at the polls last week of the 1998, Proposition 227, which mandated English-only in the public schools. Voters replaced it with Proposition 58, which grants local school districts the right to design their own programs for English language instruction, including bilingual education.

Here is Gandara’s description of what happened last week in California: “As the election results were rolling in across the country signaling that Donald Trump would become the 45th president of the United States, nearly three-quarters of Californians had voted to restore bilingual education in California. The Trump campaign had been overtly anti-immigrant, while the restoration of bilingual education was an affirmation of the valuing of the children of immigrants…  Proposition 58, ‘The Multilingual Education Initiative,’ lifted the ban and expands access to bilingual (usually targeted to English learners) and dual-language programs (that incorporate both English learners and English speakers wanting to learn a second language).”

Gandara briefly summarizes academic research on the benefits of bilingual education of both types: “During the last 18 years, research has been conducted that shows significant benefits to multilingual instruction. Canadians have long been researching the cognitive benefits and concluding that learning in more than one language effectively made students ‘smarter’—they demonstrated a greater capacity for focused attention and avoidance of distractions… In recent years, longitudinal research—following the same children over their entire school career, from kindergarten to high school—comparing those in bilingual and dual-language programs to those in English-only classrooms, has concluded that while the bilinguals start slower, they end with superior outcomes in English, and Latino students perform better in both English and math when enrolled in bilingual programs.”

It is a fine thing that Californians have taken the very step that academic researchers recommend.  It is far more moving to understand how this feels personally to someone who endured the English-only regime that has operated for a long time in California and many other places across the United States.  In Tuesday’s NY Times, Héctor Tobar, a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, tells his own story as a boy who grew up during “English-only”: “In the deepest reaches of my brain, there is a boy who speaks Spanish. He calls his mother and father ‘Mamá‘ and ‘Papá.’  One of his favorite expressions is ‘qué lindo‘ (how nice, or how sweet).  He’s proud of the Mexican slang he’s learned: for instance, ‘no hay pedo,’ which means ‘no problem,’ though its literal translation is ‘there is no fart.’  California nearly killed that boy… Like millions of Latino kids educated in California public schools, I never took a class in Spanish grammar or Spanish literature, nor was I ever asked to write a single word with an accent or a squiggly tilde over it…. Spanish was the language of poverty and backwardness in the eyes of some school administrators, and many others. Supposedly, we got smarter by forgetting Spanish. By the time I was a teenager, I spoke the language at the level of a second grader. My English was perfect, but in Spanish I was a nincompoop.  I knew I had lost something priceless to me.”

Tobar loves languages and he endorses bilingualism: “No one disputes that every child in this country should learn English. But the no-Spanish dictate amounted to a form of cultural erasure. It was a cruel, shortsighted act, born of ignorance and intolerance. Being literate in the language of your immigrant ancestors (whether that language is Spanish, Korean, Mandarin or Armenian) makes you wiser and more powerful. I know this from experience.”

Tobar made up for the loss of his family’s primary language by studying Spanish in college. “With Spanish endearments and ample use of the subjective tense and the diminutive, I have learned that to know a language is to enter into another way of being… Today, I write books in English, but the roots of my career as a writer lie in Spanish literacy and Spanish fluency.”

And there is something even more personal: “Most of my extended family lives in Guatemala and speaks no English. When I returned to that country as a fluent Spanish speaker, I had my first grown-up conversations with my grandparents, uncles and cousins.”

Please read Héctor Tobar’s very moving plea for bilingual education.  Thank goodness Californians have formally recognized that forcing immigrants to extinguish their primary languages and their cultures is no way to “make America great again.”

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