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Hablamos English


If I start hablando espaƱol here, does it make you nervous? Maybe that’s what happened in a high school in Kansas City, Kan. (in a state whose school board is already a fine model of intellectual openness and high academic standards).
This Washington Post article reports on a student who was suspended for speaking Spanish in the high school’s halls. The suspension was then revoked when the parent complained to the district. In explaining why she suspended the student for 1 1/2 days, the principal noted, “This is not the first time we have [asked the student] and others to not speak Spanish at school,” according to the article.
And that’s because the principal’s concerned about the students discussing revolution? Or she just likes to make sure everyone’s on a level playing field when it comes to gossip? While this article is worth reading just for the jolt of outrage it provokes, it also highlights the split personality syndrome we have in the States toward foreign languages.
For native English speakers, learning a second language is a high-status achievement. Good colleges require foreign languages. With another language, Suzy can run the foreign subsidiary, Johnny can make a difference in the Peace Corps, Amy can travel the world with less chance of being subject to incomprehensible menus. It’s not a hard sell for privileged parents.
An elementary school not far from my home has a “dual language immersion” program that aims at making native English and Spanish speakers fully bilingual in both languages. Since it has started, English-speaking parents hound the school every year trying to get their kids in.
Note that the school is not labeled “bilingual education,” to distinguish it from programs that teach only English learners. Bilingual education is, unfortunately, considered lower status and very politicized and entangled with views on immigration, as people argue how to help non-English speaking students learn English. The approaches range across a spectrum of how much of the native language to allow and encourage in the classroom and for how long – and the balance tilts toward more English whenever voters get fired up about immigration.
So while English-speaking children of privilege are encouraged to learn another language, children of immigrants are given little to no support in maintaining use of and gaining an academic grounding in those same languages their richer peers are working hard to learn. With no school support, and with the parents too sometimes pushing for what they see as the fastest route to integration, kids of immigrants have for many generations lost their parents’ languages – with the adult children often regretting the loss.
In our area, it was harder to persuade the Spanish-speaking parents than the English-speaking parents to try the dual language school, although the school’s principal says as she educates parents they quickly are accepting that there are benefits. For Spanish-speaking parents, having their kids learn English is a vital priority in their schooling, and it can be hard to accept that adding languages rather than focusing on one enhances rather than harms learning. Particularly when research on language teaching can get distorted by non-educational agendas.
But bilingualism is beneficial for almost all kids. Encouraging non-English speaking kids in their home tongues helps Maria run the foreign subsidiary, and Huang contribute in the Peace Corps and Joao travel the world. And to that, I say muy bien.

Share  Posted by Deborah Klosky at 1:41 PM | Permalink

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