English Only Initiative
I grew up in a household where it was not uncommon to hear my parents mix three languages into a conversation, and sometimes even into a single sentence. This was because my parents came from a world where speaking several languages was not only the norm, it was expected. My father was born in Austria. As a teenager, he fled Hitler’s Europe for Israel and ended up in the US as an adult. By the time he arrived, he spoke German, Latin, Hebrew and some English. My mother’s journey was similar. She fled her native Germany for Israel and then came to the US. She spoke German, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and bits of English.
When they met in New York, they spoke to each other in German and Hebrew while they went to school to improve their English. Clearly, their proficiency with the English language contributed to their success in the US.
When the English Only Initiative passed last November, I was not surprised. I imagine that for most voters the question read something like: Do you think people who move to the US should learn English? The only answer is: Of course. Many voters seemed more interested in this issue than the Governor’s race and after the elections analysts determined that Mitt Romney benefited from aligning himself with English Only, though I think he benefited more from Shannon O’Brien’s uninspired message.
Anyway, I wasn’t surprised when Question 2 passed. To tell you the truth, while I voted against English Only, I’m not sure which is the most effective method for teaching English to non-native speakers. But, I am sure that the a strain on schools, teachers and towns because of English Immersion is another in a long series of failures by our state’s Department of Education to lead. Instead of initiating the discussion, and inspiring the debate on how to improve education for all children, the DOE is forced into the role of implementing a pedagogical philosophy chosen at the ballot box.
When I was eighteen, I took a break from college and for a variety of reasons ended up spending four months in Paris. The first thing I did there was to enroll in a school that taught conversational French. The class consisted of adults from all over the world and the teacher spoke to us exclusively in French. I learned to speak in a hurry and was quickly able to embarrass myself all over Paris. A friend I met had a job selling train tickets at Paris’ north station. That minimum wage job required her to speak four languages: French, English, Spanish and German. She learned all those languages in high school. Students all over Europe, it seemed, participated in multi-lingual education without controversy.
Like many others who have weighed in on the English Only, I have worked with non-native speakers in high schools and colleges, though not as a bilingual teacher. I have seen students become completely bilingual and this opened many, many doors for them. Others never acquired adequate English skills and this closed most doors to them. So, I’m not convinced which side is right. There is always a better way to do things. But, too often we replace without improving. This has been a recurring practice of the Department of Education and I fear that the English Only will be just another example.
The biggest problem I have with the passage of this initiative is the misplaced enthusiasm and glee of the English Only crusade. Every day, children across our state, and across our nation, third, fourth, fifth generation citizens who live in households where English is the only language, who live in neighborhoods where English is the only language, do not receive adequate English education due to a lack of resources and a lack of real commitment to education.
Therefore, I want to enlist that overwhelming majority of supporters of English Only to join me in calling for English Immersion for all children in the Massachusetts. In fact, let’s do one better and call for an Education Immersion initiative across the US. Let’s really fund Education in the Federal budget, not just that paper work nightmare "Leave No Child Behind" that the Bush Administration is willing to require but not fund. Forget bailing out the insurance industry, or the airline industry, lets bail out our schools, the place where homeland security begins, and give every child a real opportunity to participate fully in our American Dream.