Speaking of Tongues
Bilingualism is a huge advantage in today’s world. But as a policy goal, it is unrealistic. A response to Cristina RodrÃƒguez.
Where she does venture an international comparison, it is to draw a striking analogy between the debates over the Spanish language here and over the use of the veil by Muslim women in Europe. Both debates deal with national and cultural symbols, but I am more struck by the differences. American law, for example, gives broad (though not unlimited) constitutional protection to the wearing of veils, skullcaps, and other religious or ethnic symbols. In contrast, France–obsessed (not too strong a word) with its century-old tradition of la‘cité and its refusal to make any significant concession to publicly-recognized ethnic differences–provides only much more limited protection for these differences (e.g., if the cross or Star of David is very small). And, as migration expert Aristide Zolberg has noted, France takes a far more monolingual stance toward integration–in part, because most of its immigrants come from the Maghreb, where French is usually both the language of instruction and the lingua franca. It does not provide for public services in other languages, except for criminal defendants, and even transitional bilingual education does not exist except, at the elementary level, as an elective subject outside of regular school hours. The United States has–so far–been much more successful than France in managing diversity in general, and the linguistic and other assimilation issues posed by immigrants (especially Muslims) in particular. Thus RodrAï¿½guez’s fear of an intolerant anglophonic monoculture is misplaced. America is simply too diverse and culturally laissez-faire for that to happen.
Focusing on the issue of bilingual education here at home, RodrAï¿½guez maintains that “as educators and policymakers focus single-mindedly on the best way to teach English, they are squandering a significant opportunity by giving scant consideration to native-language retention.” But this assumes native-language retention should be a public responsibility, the province of policymakers. Instead, the task of defining, transmitting, and retaining linguistic and cultural practices is properly the domain of families and other civil society institutions, not of government, which is at a comparative disadvantage in pursuing such controversial and normatively sensitive goals. Different families are bound to disagree about the content and even the value of linguistic-cultural maintenance. Fortunately, American public policy has, with regrettable exceptions in some bilingual education programs, adopted this privatistic model of cultural maintenance.
To be sure, the arguments over bilingual education are an amalgam of social science claims, ethnic politics, educational theory, nostalgic history, and sheer ideology. Much in this debate depends, as it should, on the details of particular programs, especially their implementation. But immigrant parents, who have the greatest stake in effective bilingual programs, have made up their minds: Their opposition is both persistent and widespread. A Public Agenda poll published in 2003 found that almost two-thirds of immigrants wanted all public school classes to be taught in English rather than having children of immigrants take some courses in their native language. This virtually mirrors the views of the general public. Polls also indicate that once California’s Proposition 227 eliminated most bilingual programs in the state’s public schools in the late 1990s, more than 60 percent of Latinos supported this change, including many who had voted against it. Surveys also indicate that Latinos overwhelmingly reject other programs that emphasize cultural maintenance.
RodrAï¿½guez’s unequivocal support for bilingual education must presuppose good, effective programs. Real world programs, however, have disserved large numbers of Hispanic schoolchildren. Consider the programs in immigrant-friendly New York City, where 15 percent of the school population–65 percent of whom are Spanish-speakers–are considered LEP. Although its bilingual and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs are billed as transitional, about half of the students are still in them after three years. Indeed, about 10 percent of them remain in the programs after seven years or more. Many of those who enter the school system in sixth grade or above are more proficient in English than in their parents’ tongue when they begin, but then lose their English proficiency after years of supposedly transitional classes. (It is too early to tell whether the English-only instructional methods mandated as a result of these failures will remedy this tragic situation.) Public policy should not be premised on model programs that are too seldom found in reality.
Instead, we should empower parents to decide the best way to secure English fluency for their children. To this end, I have proposed in my book Diversity in America that parents of LEP children receive publicly funded vouchers, equal in value to the special per-pupil cost of instructing LEP students, with which they could purchase any accredited English-language instruction, public or private, that they prefer to the public school’s offering. Parents who select total English immersion for their child in mainstream public school classes could use their voucher to purchase accredited supplementary ESL, tutoring, or other educational services. In addition, the government would police fraudulent providers and support basic and applied research about the effectiveness of different approaches and providers, as well as disseminate the results to parents and providers.
LEP vouchers are likely to broaden parental information and choice, tailor services more closely to individual need, enhance provider accountability, encourage lower-cost and less-politicized services, and exert salutary competitive pressure on the public schools. Almost by definition, these vouchers would target the neediest children, those most at risk of dropping out and of related problems, without spreading limited funds over the great majority of non-LEP children whose families already have more and better choices. Different families could pursue different avenues to English-language competence according to their distinctive needs and values as they see them; parents would choose precisely how much and what kind of linguistic-cultural maintenance their children should have. Vouchers also would invite competition among many potential service providers with respect to quality, cost, convenience, and other aspects of language instruction, encouraging experimentation and research on more effective methods. This last is particularly valuable in a pedagogical area in which the only expert consensus seems to be that no consensus yet exists.
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