Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation”.
— Madiba (Nelson) Mandela: 1918-2013
A recent incident in Hempstead Texas made news when a middle school principal ordered Mexican-American students not to speak Spanish or else face punishment. While this principal’s bigoted attitude and behavior may sound like something out of the segregated past this type of incident and psychological abuse of minority children is not an isolated one. Parents complained about this insensitive principal and she was reprimanded for her actions by school district authorities and placed on paid leave. I would describe this principal’s intolerant attitude and practice as that of a die-hard supporter of the traditional policy of forced linguistic and cultural amnesia. In essence, the objective of this archaic and lingering policy that this principal is enforcing constitutes an ongoing disrespect and discriminatory practice toward the language and cultural rights of other ethnic and linguistic groups and particularly harms the children at her school. This ideological outlook and policy is derived from a backward world view that predominated during the nineteenth-century colonial era. That was a time when more powerful ethnic majorities dominated minority groups through military means and then imposed a compulsory official language upon them in order to shatter their identity and facilitate a method of control. The objective of this old and oppressive practice was to forcefully assimilate minority groups through a systematic mental process of eliminating their language, culture and identity. However, this practice did not necessarily mean assimilating them racially on an equal physical basis as segregation was generally the norm. In the US this indoctrination process has been given the euphemistic terms of “Americanization or the melting pot”. This process of coerced assimilation has resembled more of a cookie cutter assembly line whose purpose is to regurgitate uniformly designed human cookies, but with different looking textural colors. It is unfortunate that in 2013 we still have individuals such as this principal in Texas and many others around the country who are intimidating and harming children instead of educationally nurturing and motivating them. Adding to this problem is that there are still existing laws that ban the use of bilingualeducation such as in California that need to be abolished. While some school districts and states around the country approve the academic use of bilingual methodology in their schools there are many others who refuse to do so and still adhere to the old and outdated ‘sink or swim’ method of forced immersion to teach young English learners.
There has Been a Long Tradition of Bilingual Education Within the US
There is no constitutional and compulsory official language in this country, yet, many uninformed people still assume that there is and behave accordingly. During the early formative years of this country there were many European languages spoken in addition to those spoken by the numerous indigenous peoples. When anti-government rebellions by the working poor broke out during the 1780′s and 1790′s, the issue of language was not a primary concern for the wealthy creators of the US Constitution. They were more interested in maintaining political order by creating a narrow and restrictive republic that economically protected the property and voting rights of well-to-do white males and their ownership of slaves and indentured servants. English was the predominant language of the wealthy upper-sector within the new US, but their immediate political objective and concern was to keep the poor and rebellious social classes in their place rather than what language they spoke. The rise of the public school system during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries witnessed the creation of many bilingualschools throughout different parts of the country. Students were taught bilingually in English-German, French, Dutch and Japanese. The sectors of our society that were excluded from this right were Native-American children who were forcefully taken from their parents and placed into government-run boarding schools to be assimilated through coercive methods. Adding to this exclusion were Mexican-American, African-American and Asian children who attended inferior and segregated English-only schools where a low level of language proficiency and academic achievement was the norm. However, the children of the nation’s wealthy upper-class had the traditional privilege of studying other languages such as French, German and Latin and being multilingual according to them was a valued characteristic of someone who was cultured and well-educated. Just prior to World War One and right after, the federal government sponsored violent and widespread nativist campaigns against immigrants, foreigners and non-English languages. The objectives of these campaigns were the deportation of politically involved immigrants, eliminating bilingual schools and the use of other languages which were declared to be “un-American”. The ongoing result of these actions has been a continuous national-chauvinist policy of imposing and teaching English as the compulsory official language within the public schools. The aim of this policy is the elimination of the native languages and cultures of minority groups and the imposition of a system of forced assimilation upon them.
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A Democratic Method Versus Forced Assimilation and Linguistic Amnesia
There are two approaches and methods in regard to the issue of linguistics and language rights within a multinational society such as ours. One is the traditional 19th century colonial policy and method which is based upon indoctrination and the use of force against subjugated ethnic groups. Implementing this policy and dogmatic method within the schools imposes a compulsory language on children through the use of harsh rules, intimidation and even punishment for those who don’t abide by such a program of mandatory immersion. This undemocratic method that has traditionally been utilized within our schools is usually referred to as the English-only or ‘sink or swim’ method of teaching. When the dominant ethnic group within a country uses the element of mental and physical coercion to impose their language upon ethnic minorities this results in a linguistic privilege and literacy over those whom they dominate. Such linguistic coercion which has been used against the children of Native-Americans, Mexican-Americans and different immigrant groups generally instills within these young people a sense of resentment, a low-image and even nationalistic resistance. Contrary to the romantic tales handed down about past immigrants quickly learning English, actual documented studies show that many immigrants and their offspring who experienced this system of forced assimilation and ‘sink or swim’ learning did not progress educationally until the third generation. The imposition of a compulsory and “official” language upon minority children and a denial of their right to abilingual instructional program usually results in a lower level of educational achievement by these English learners. Another consequence of such an undemocratic policy is the antagonizing of ethnic groups and the creation of friction among them due to arrogant practices which declare English to be a superior language while demeaning the use of other tongues. When people and especially children are told that their language is not valued nor needed, this conveys to them that they, their families and their people, are somehow inferior and this ultimately results in anger, confusion and the acquisition of a negative and low value toward education. Contrary to this coercive method of indoctrination is the democratic method which advocates for the right of children to be given instruction in their native language and maintain their culture. This method uses persuasion, discussion, and respect for a child’s native language and respects the child’s right to become bilingual. The educational use of such a democratic method where the voluntary and motivating practices of bilingualism are used to teach children English in a constructive and positive manner will produce much more academic progress as well as an eventual increase in mutual respect and unity among ethnic groups.
Confusion still exists over the aims of bilingual and bicultural methodology
The academic objective of bilingual education is for children to acquire English fluency through the democratic use of persuasion, respect and a voluntary learning response. This is done by instructing a child in his/her native language and using those skills to simultaneously learn English. As one cognitive specialist has stated, “It’s like being able to play the piano and then transferring those skills over to the violin”. The aim of bilingualeducation is to maintain a child’s native language and eventually mainstream these English learners with their new language skills into regular English classes which will usually take about 3-5 years depending upon the student’s progress. In essence, a full bilingual program utilizes a methodology that motivates students to respond to instruction in a positive and voluntary manner as opposed to a method that uses coercion and instills shame in children by negating their native language and culture. Children’s young minds are like sponges that are capable of easily learning different languages and cultures and this capability should not be stifled by self-serving adult agendas. Linguistic chauvinists and ultra-nationalist supporters of forced assimilation promote the slanderous and false notion that the “conspiratorial” aim of bilingualeducationis to primarily maintain a child’s native language and not achieve English proficiency. These confused xenophobes parrot the redundant position that “everyone” in the past has learned English easily and rapidly through the use of this country’s traditional ‘sink-or-swim’ method and that it should be continued. Another ridiculous charge that is also leveled by these misinformed elements is that bilingualism will lead to separatism, disunity and a non-homogeneous society without the forced imposition of a compulsory official language. What these advocates of coercion and linguistic amnesia are really concerned about is the use and maintenance of another language and culture by young people and they react with frenzied behavior as if this was some sort of conspiratorial threat by adolescents to linguistically disrupt society. According to the paranoid thinking of these uninformed right-wingers any persons who are bilingual and bicultural are somehow a growing threat to the country and an ability to speak other languages especially by children needs to be stamped out. The continuing use of a ‘sink-or-swim’ or forced English immersion methodology on children often results in a sense of low self-esteem and identity problems among these children. Other negative consequences of this harmful method are a lack of academic achievement and progress by English learners in core classes such as science, math and history which are conducted in academic English and this is a contributing factor to a higher dropout rate.
Being multi-lingual and multi-cultural is good for the mind and forsociety
The majority of studies by psychiatrists and cognitive scientists show that bilingualism enhances more reserves of brain power in the form of activity and flexibility which are required to process different linguistic sounds and words. In contrast to an English-only curriculum bilingual children develop better cognitive skills by reading better and faster which then produces a sense of pride and a positive self-image. In addition, the study and use by children of their home language also helps them to become skilled English speakers and enhances communication between family members. The objective of a well-runbilingual program is to not only acquire basic social proficiency in English, but to also achieve a higher-level of academic proficiency which is required for academic success in higher education. Bilingualism and multilingualism benefit both individuals and countries as the growth of globalization increasingly requires mutual and proficient communication in the fields of economics, politics and culture. Most of the world is increasingly bilingual or multilingual and countries such as trilingual Switzerland and bilingual Canada and Finland who are world leaders in student educational achievement are utilizing their proficiency in languages to further enhance their societies and their children’s academic progress. This is in contrast to the latest international academic reports which show US academic achievement stagnating and not even ranking within the top twenty countries. The xenophobes and nativists in this country who are trying to stem the tide of bilingualism, biculturalism and diversity are becoming like dinosaurs who cannot adapt and struggle to resist innovation as the world changes around them. Our children who possess bilingual skills and a knowledge of diverse cultures will be the valuable resource that propels our society toward a better future. Acculturation is necessary for survival in this country, however, this is not necessarily the same as total assimilation and a loss of one’s identity. Unfortunately, the educational system and schools within our society continue to be inequitable and discriminatory particularly toward working-class Latino children and this results in an unequal level of education that is provided to them. Children who are English learners deserve the right to have instruction given in their native language while transitioning to a level of English proficiency. These children cannot defend themselves against these educational injustices so we must stand up for them by demanding that their right to a qualitative bilingualeducation and the opportunity to become successful be made a reality.