Rethinking bilingualism

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Apr 19 08:18:35 UTC 2007

ROSE: Rethinking bilingualism

By LILLIAN ROSE Local Columnist

 Recently, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich once again advocated
the demise of bilingual education. This was a throw back to the posture of
the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994. The intension was to wedge
bilingualism as an issue to divide the Democratic constituencies by
largely forbidding the use of languages other than English by the federal

A few years later, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 expired quietly in
2002. It was eliminated as part of a larger school reform measure known as
No Child Left Behind. Under No Child Left Behind, schools are greatly
accountable for immersing immigrant children in English so that in three
years they will attain English language fluency. According to Stephen
Krashen, a leading advocate of bilingualism from the University of
Southern California, research has proven that English immersion in and by
itself proved to be ineffectual before the notion of bilingual education
was born in the 1960s.

So, what is bilingual education? Bilingual education offers an immigrant
student education in his primary language interspersed with English at his
level of understanding, from the very first day. The premise is that when
subject matter is taught in the first language, the child will understand
the subject matter. Once a child has developed literacy in its primary
language, it transfers it into the second language. Krashen continues on
to say, It is easier to learn to read in a language we understand. Once we
can read in one language, we can read in general. Historically, advocacies
of English-only policies are nothing new. As James Crawford points out in
his Anatomy of the English-Only Movement, language attitudes and language
policies date back to the 1700s. Benjamin Franklin often wrote fearfully
that the German settlers were not learning English. He denounced their use
of German in anything from street signs to advertisements and newspapers
same criticism today of signage in Spanish.  Seeing the growth of the
German population, he feared these new immigrants would soon have an upper
hand in business as well as politics. It wasnt until the American
Revolution that Franklin saw Germans as potential allies and soon espoused
a different attitude towards the question of language, embracing

As the main writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson
was faced years later, with honoring his own rhetoric about unalienable
rights. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 he chose, for the sake of
expediency, a colonial governor who was unable to speak French, the
language of most of the inhabitants in the area, but came in with edicts
about all public affairs being carried out in English. The demonstrations
that followed forced Jefferson to rescind the English-Only policy. It
wasnt until Louisiana joined the union, in 1812, that Congress required
Louisiana to adopt all public documents and records in English. The French
language remained in schools, but after the Civil War it was abolished by
Union troops. The result was assimilation by Louisianans into the
mainstream, although French, to this day is still spoken by Cajuns and
Creoles just as the Amish still thrive in German in Pennsylvania.  In
California, before the Mexican-American War, the majority of the
population spoke Spanish and some of the Anglo elites had intermarried
with the local population learning their language and adapting to their
customs. After the war, the Treaty of Guadalupe had entertained the rights
of Spanish citizens annexed to the United States.

However, the Gold Rush and the ambitions of many politicians soon changed
all of that. Spanish language schooling was discontinued and all the laws
of the State of California, writings and judicial proceedings were to be
conducted only in English.  Perhaps the most repressive language policies
were directed towards the Native American Indians. With the advent of
missionaries into their lands, the language policy had been lenient
allowing missionaries to learn the indigenous vernacular. After the Civil
War, with Indian resistance of white expansion into their lands, the
federal government coercively pursued English-Only policies. Children were
forbidden to speak in their mother tongue, practice tribal religions or
participate in tribal ceremonies. It was an attempt to eradicate a
generations ancestral linguistic heritage.

Today, with fear of diversity, there is still a large portion of our
society seeking to restrict bilingualism. The irony is that with one hand
we are striking at bilingualism and in the other we are encouraging our
English-speaking students to take a foreign language in order to succeed
in the era of globalization.  Case in point, most Europeans learn two or
three languages as children. We should make bilingual education better,
provide more reading materials and enhance it with teaching English as a
Second language. Trust the research:  second and third generation
immigrants learn English and successfully assimilate into the mainstream
of American society.

Lillian Rose writes for The Evening News and The Tribune. She is a retired
international consultant. She is active as vice president of the Hispanic
Connection and is pastoral associate with the Hispanic Ministry of the New
Albany Deanery. You can write to her at Lillian at


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