IF I WERE a Hispanic American, I would feel humiliated every time an automated telephone answering system prompted me to "press 1 for English, 2 for Spanish." I would wince every time a bank ATM invited me to conduct my transaction en espanol. It would mortify me to click on a government web site and find a link to the site's elaborate Spanish-language section.
If I were Hispanic, I would be ashamed that so many American institutions take it for granted that people like me can't understand English. I would notice that there were never any telephone prompts or hyperlinks for Italian or Hindi or Japanese. I would realize that no one assumes that German-, Arab-, or Vietnamese-Americans are unable to communicate in English. I don't know which would depress me more: the knowledge that my fellow citizens feel obliged to condescend to Hispanics or my sense that so many Hispanics prefer it that way.
That's how I would feel if I were Hispanic. In fact, I am the son of a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia who immigrated to America in 1948. The only English he knew were the words he picked up on the boat coming over. But like millions of immigrants before him, and like scores of others he met after settling in Cleveland, he made learning English an urgent priority.
So two nights a week he would take the bus to a public high school that offered English classes, and on a third night he would attend another English class at the Jewish community center. To practice, my father and a number of fellow immigrants formed a New Americans Club, which organized Sunday outings during which everyone was expected to speak English. His grammar isn't perfect, and he never lost his accent, but for the past half-century English has been my father's primary language.
America in the '40s and '50s didn't make life easy for non-English-speakers, a fact for which I am deeply grateful. My father was forced to learn English; it was the prerequisite to American life. I don't know that he would have been as diligent about getting on that bus three nights a week if Cleveland's banks had provided Slovak-speaking tellers or if government forms had been available in Hungarian, or if schools had routinely shunted the children of Jewish immigrants into "bilingual" classes taught in Yiddish. (My father was fluent in all three.) Not learning English was not an option. My father had to acquire the common American tongue. His life has been better for it.
What triggers these reflections is the debate over ballot measures in Massachusetts and Colorado that would put an end to traditional bilingual education. Instead of letting non-English-speaking children languish in "transitional" bilingual classes for years, the proposed measures -- Question 2 in Massachusetts, Amendment 31 in Colorado -- would require them to enter a one-year English-immersion program. Similar ballot questions won handily in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000.
When bilingual education was first introduced, it was possible for reasonable people to disagree about the most effective way to teach English to children from non-English-speaking homes. By now, the evidence of bilingual's failure is so voluminous that only ideologues and the willfully blind can claim that it is superior to early immersion in English.
"The accumulated research of the past 30 years reveals almost no justification for teaching children in their native languages to help them learn either English or other subjects," Rosalie Pedalino Porter has written in The Atlantic Monthly. "Self-esteem is not higher among limited-English students who are taught in their native languages, and stress is not higher among children who are introduced to English from the first day of school."
Porter's bona fides are sterling: She used to teach Spanish-language bilingual classes in Springfield and later became the director of bilingual education in Newton. In 2000 she was named cochairman of the Massachusetts Bilingual Education Advisory Council. She became an English-immersion advocate only after many years of believing in the status quo. All across the country there are educators like Porter -- bilingual teachers and administrators who could no longer go on denying the truth: Students learn English fastest when they learn it from day one.
The enemies of English immersion will say anything to discredit those who want reform. At a rally at the Massachusetts State House this week, Question 2 was denounced as "hateful and spiteful"; Ron Unz, the California businessman who has been the moving force behind these ballot measures, was compared by the head of the Hispanic American Chamber of Commerce to a Nazi. The thuggishness of such "arguments" says much about what the bilingual industry has become and the lengths to which it will go to protect its empire. If I were Hispanic, there is nothing I would want more than to see that empire dismantled.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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