[lg policy] Let Them Speak English: Teaching kids our common language. (fwd)
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Date: Wed, 27 May 2009 11:53:16 -0400
From: Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at gmail.com>
Reply-To: Language Policy List <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
To: lp <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
Subject: [lg policy] Let Them Speak English: Teaching kids our common language.
May 26, 2009, 0:00 a.m.
Let Them Speak English: Teaching kids our common language.
An NRO Q&A
It’s common sense: Foreign-born children should learn English.
Unfortunately, the bilingual-education establishment disagrees — and
Rosalie Pedalino Porter has battled it for more than a generation as a
teacher, activist, and author. Her new book is a memoir: American
Immigrant: My Life in Three Languages. On the first page of the
introduction, she writes: “The battle to give upwards of five million
immigrant children our common language, English, and to help these
students join their English-speaking classmates in opportunities for
self-fulfillment — this is the mission that keeps me working long
beyond a reasonable retirement age.” Porter recently took questions
from NRO’s John J. Miller.
JOHN J. MILLER: You came to the United States as a little girl from
Italy. How hard was it for you to learn English?
ROSALIE PEDALINO PORTER: It was painful, sitting there, not
understanding a word. There was no special help in school for
immigrant kids. You either “picked up” the language or dropped out. I
managed to learn English quite well in about a year and a half, enough
to do all the school work but still making grammatical errors. But the
joy of understanding and being able to speak was tremendous.
MILLER: The Grand Poobahs of multiculturalism might say that the
schools forced you to assimilate and abandon your cultural heritage.
PORTER: That is absolute tripe! I never abandoned my cultural
heritage. The magnificent appeal of our country is that new arrivals
are free to keep or drop whatever they want of their language,
customs, religion, foods, etc. I am fluent and literate in my native
language as well as in English and Spanish. It’s nutty to demand that
every immigrant’s language and culture be maintained by the schools —
let the family do that part, and demand that the public schools teach
our common language and literature as well as math, science, U.S.
history and civics, for starters.
MILLER: Why did you become an advocate of bilingual education, i.e.,
the theory that children can learn English by mastering their native
PORTER: It was purely wishful thinking and idealism! I had long
intended to become a professor of Spanish literature, but when I heard
about the new education effort, I fell in love with the theory in the
expectation that it would help non-English-speaking kids. I changed my
major, became a Spanish/English bilingual teacher, and embraced the
magical thinking that teaching children in Spanish would help them
learn English faster and better.
MILLER: When did you recognize this wasn’t the best approach? What
changed your mind?
PORTER: Within my first few years of teaching, I realized through
practical experience that the working model was flawed and could not
possibly do what it was intended to do. Young children, especially,
are at the optimal age to learn a second language quickly, to read and
write and use the new language in school. Teaching my Puerto Rican
students in Spanish most of the day did not result in their mastering
English in three years; many did not make it under this plan in five
or six years. Too many children in bilingual classrooms eventually
went on to high school unprepared. But the bilingual-education
bureaucracy was so well-entrenched with jobs, money, and political
correctness that attempts to modify the program were easily shot down,
most politicians being too cowardly to make legislative changes in the
MILLER: What should schools and teachers do, if they want immigrant
children to become fluent in English?
PORTER: The most sensible, practical, and obvious plan is to start
teaching these children English from the first day of school, give
lots of time to special lessons in the English language. This type of
“Structured English Immersion” is the only guaranteed approach that
research has shown to give non-English speakers a good command of
speaking, reading, and writing the language, to give children the
skills with which to make the greatest use of educational opportunity.
Not to mention the other opportunity of great value: the earliest
chance to feel included in school and community life.
MILLER: This sounds like common sense. Why do so many educators resist it?
PORTER: Not anymore — support for the commonsense English-teaching
approach has grown in leaps and bounds over the past dozen years.
Bilingual education is dying and almost universally discredited. A
small number of “true believers” among the educrats and some Latino
ethnic promoters and multiculturalists still pay lip service to the
outdated idea, but not many. Oregon voters in the 2008 election voted
to keep bilingual education, swayed by the huge amounts of
teachers’-union money that was poured in to defeat the initiative
question. Guess there are still a few fuzzy thinkers on the left, I
mean, west coast.
MILLER: What was the response among bilingual-education professionals
when they learned of your apostasy?
PORTER: It was not pretty! One does not easily take an alternative
position on such a motherhood issue as bilingual education. In fact,
in spite of all the multicultural niceties and diversity ballyhoo,
there is precious little diversity of ideas in some areas of
education, and this area is the most dogmatic. I have debated many of
the true believers from teachers and school administrators to
university gurus and the director of the federal government’s
bilingual-education office. These debates and my writing have been my
contribution to opening a public dialogue.
MILLER: Did your work on behalf of immigrant children carry a personal toll?
PORTER: Being called a racist and a hater of foreigners and foreign
languages in public hurts, especially knowing that none of these
charges reflects my character. But I’m a big girl and can stand stupid
criticism and fight back. The truly appalling attack on my work by a
public official in Massachusetts, who tried to have my doctoral
dissertation thrown out, gave me the most pain. To be the first in my
immigrant family to attain a high degree and to learn that political
pressure almost denied me the doctorate — that was tough to get over.
MILLER: Are today’s immigrant children learning English and
assimilating, or are they being trapped in linguistic ghettos and
condemned to lives at the bottom rungs of the U.S. economic ladder?
PORTER: Until a decade ago, the latter was mostly the case. Since
1998, three states with huge numbers of non-English-speaking children
have — finally — changed their state laws to dismantle bilingual
education and require English Immersion teaching instead. At last, not
through the efforts of state lawmakers but through ballot initiatives,
we’ve succeeded in changing the bad old laws and the results are truly
gratifying. California in 1998, Arizona in 2000, and Massachusetts in
2002 revised their laws. Already state reports show students learning
English much faster and scoring higher grades in reading and math on
state tests. This is phenomenal news. Until recently bilingual
children were excused from testing for years, so no one knew how
poorly they were being educated. A few states still have bilingual
education laws, Texas and Illinois, for example, so the overhaul is
not complete. High-school dropout rates and labor-market earning
statistics document the fact that, as Antonio Gramsci put it long ago,
“Without the mastery of the common standard version of the national
language, one is inevitably destined to function only at the periphery
of national life and outside the national and political mainstream.”
MILLER: Whoa! Wasn’t Gramsci a Marxist who inspired the Left’s “long
march” through our cultural institutions? Why are you quoting him?
PORTER: Worse than that, he was an anarchist/Marxist! I didn’t quote
him because he was my paisano but because he gave us that beautifully
concise statement of what I believe in with all my being. To deny
children the means to function well enough in the language of a new
country to overcome the obstacles of poverty, dislocation, etc. is to
deny these children their civil rights. This also applies to the once
fashionable notion that African-American children should be taught in
Ebonics and not forced to lose their “cultural purity” by being taught
in Standard English. What a bunch of codswallop!
MILLER: Do you agree that “codswallop” should be one of the first
English words we teach immigrant children? At least it would give them
something to shout at the bilingual-ed militants.
PORTER: Nah, maybe not the first word. The more words we know, no
matter whether common or arcane, the richer our vocabulary, the
greater our ability to understand and make ourselves understood. It
also equips a person to do the New York Times crossword puzzle and win
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