Bucking the English-Only Mentality

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Sep 9 22:10:50 UTC 2008

Bucking the English-Only Mentality By Klaus

*"Buenos días, maestro."

"Good morning Mr. U." *

Most of my Latino students are fluent speakers of both Spanish and English;
and not just on the playground. They switch back and forth quickly between
languages. Looking at my students, our global economy, and their potential
professional success in life, I am asking myself if we shouldn't take
advantage of such a promising base and develop both languages to their
fullest potential. Let's face it: Being bilingual puts our students ahead
professionally. Imagine an English only speaker and a bilingual speaker
applying for a position at a company that deals with Latin America. Who has
more chances getting hired? Not to mention that bilingualism definitely
generates some personal perks as well.

However, since No Child Left Behind was implemented ever more emphasis is
given to English language arts and math. In his most recent State of the
Union address, President Bush brought science back into the discussion of
top-notch education and global competitiveness. How about second and third
languages? Those have been neglected for the longest time and are getting
entirely lost due to the direction of the current political breeze. While
talking about giving our children a globally competitive education, we
declare English the official language. Don't dare to speak to second
language learners in their native language, the reasoning goes. It prevents
them from learning English.

Has anyone argued that the new drive for extensive science in the classroom
would prevent students from learning math? No! Of course not, because it
doesn't make sense. Neither does learning another language prevent English
language development.

Putting aside the competitive aspect of education, how do we define a well
rounded educational program anyway? Well, it depends where you live! In this
country the focus seems to be very narrow. In Germany, where I grew up and
was educated many moons ago, it was common to learn a second language —
English — in fifth grade. It was mandatory and has served me well. I started
a third language — French — as an elective in seventh grade. Some of my
fellow students even took Latin in seventh grade and some humanistic schools
offered ancient Greek starting as early as fifth grade, just for kicks!
These days around the world, foreign language learning is starting even
earlier. By now, there are countries that pilot second language programs
starting as early as pre-school. Researchers and teachers realize that early
language learning is beneficial to the intellect rather than damaging or

Some people argue that developing a language other than English should be a
decision left to the family. Students who are interested in that pursuit can
do so in college if they wish. And anyway, why should the taxpayer finance
an additional language program? Well, I have one political objective in
common with Mr. Bush. I also want a top-notch academic program for everyone
and languages are just a chapter in my book of how to become an accomplished

Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138

Email: haroldfs at gmail.com

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