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Why Not Just Teach Them English?

By Charles King

Last year the Denver District School Board and Superintendent Irving Moskowitz decided to limit bilingual education to three years-down from seven years. The Board’s action–which abandons “maintenance bilingual education” in favor of “transitional” bilingual education–is a step in the right direction. But only one-step. It doesn’t go far enough. “Far enough” means the abandonment of all native-language teaching, and special classes for limited-English-proficient (LEP) children–for ONE year, not three.

Any normal non-English speaking child can and will, if encouraged and given a genuine opportunity, learn English in a year of English-immersion classes. In such classes (full time for a school year) it is helpful but by no means essential that the child’s teacher know the child’s native language. What is essential is that the student’s time be spent learning English, not another language. Teaching simple Arithmetic in a foreign language is an excellent way to teach a foreign language–English in this case.

The educational principle of “Time on Task” applies to language learning as with any other subject. Only when Denver Public Schools make the teaching and learning of English the central and primary activity in their so-called “bilingual education” classrooms will the DPS achieve the original goal (and the only goal sanctioned by the Supreme Court): providing special help to limited-English-proficient (LEP) children in becoming “literate in English.”

When in 1968 the federal government funded a “pilot program” in bilingual education, the government clearly specified that bilingual education’s only purpose was to help LEP children master English. It was only a matter of time, however, before this original linguistic purpose turned upside down–mainly by ethnic separatists in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s Office of Civil Rights–to include Hispanic “cultural” goals.

There is no federal legal requirement for schools to provide bilingual or bicultural education. All the courts have ever said, including the Supreme Court in Lau vs. Nichols (1974) is that public schools should provide non- English speaking children “some” help in learning English. That help is best given by simply teaching these children English.

Small wonder then that the dismal Hispanic dropout rate in Denver’s high schools remains unchanged after decades of so-called “bilingual education.” Even the politically minded DPS Board could no longer ignore the evidence that the program was failing in its primary purpose, and was not helping LEP Hispanic children master English quickly and efficiently.

Keeping LEP students in bilingual education for three or more years during which they are taught most of the time in their native language robs these children of the opportunity to learn another language at precisely the optimal age for learning one.

Just as affirmative action began as a federal program with a laudable purpose–to oppose racial preferences–and in time became corrupted into a vast bureaucracy of l60 federal programs promoting racial preferences, so bilingual education which started out to help LEP children learn English has become a giant bureaucracy which holds LEP children back from efficient and rapid mastery of English.

Funny, ain’t it?, how millions of non-English speaking immigrants to this country from all parts of the globe for many generations have learned English, and learned it well, without the benefit of bilingual educators. Bilingual education proponents fail to recognize that our public schools are here to prepare students for life in the United States-not in Pakistan, not in China, not in Nicaragua.

Simultaneously they forget that as Americans we have a right, indeed a serious obligation, to maintain English as our common language. If we lose our common language we will soon lose our cultural identity as Americans. Without that identity our national unity would be greatly weakened, perhaps even disappear.

Were an Italian to emigrate to Sweden, would he expect Swedish public schools to teach his young children in Italian–on the grounds advanced by some bilingual education advocates that whatever language one speaks is a human right? Were you, as an English-speaking American, to move to Mexico would you expect the public schools there to teach your children three years in English to soften their transition into Spanish?

Californians have had their fill of bilingual education. In June they will vote on a ballot initiative, “English for Children,” which will dump bilingual education and replace the failed program with one that will provide a year of English immersion for non-English speaking children. After one year these children will be prepared to transfer to regular classrooms. Many of the strongest advocates of the initiative are Hispanics, who want their children to learn how to succeed in America, rather than being racially segregated into classrooms where they receive an inferior education.

Obviously the best way to help people learn English is to let them concentrate on learning English. That’s what California’s “English for Children” will do if passed. And that’s why it will pass.

Isn’t it high time that Colorado follows California’s lead?

Charles King is a University of Colorado-Boulder professor emeritus of Spanish, and a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org. He directed binational cultural centers in Bolivia and Colombia.

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