Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E150%257E901412,00.html?search=filter

Amendment 31: good goal, bad means
Ed Quillen
Special to the Denver Post

Sunday, October 06, 2002 - Tip O'Neill, the Massachusetts Democrat who once served as speaker of the U.S. House of
Representatives, once observed that "all politics is local."

Today that could be modified to "all language is political."

No matter what the issue, there seems to be a linguistic angle. For instance, there was a federal levy known for years as the "estate tax," which seemed an accurate description - it was a tax on estates.

Republican revisionists, however, decreed that it should be called the "death tax," even though it is not a tax on death. It's also a bit odd that Republicans oppose it since the first president to propose such a tax was a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906, he said that "we should ultimately have to consider the adoption of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount, either given in life or bequeathed upon the death of any individual," since "no amount of charity in spending such fortunes in any way compensates for misconduct in making them."

Consider our discussions about Iraq. The president wants to eliminate Saddam Hussein. But Bushites don't put it that way. They say they seek "regime change," which sounds more like the result of an election than of a war. Presumably it is a more palatable term.

The military will not use a straightforward word like "invasion." Instead, they talk about "liberating" Iraq. While this has positive connotations, U.S. GIs brought back another meaning from World War II, as in "My uncle liberated these neat smoke grenades from some supply depot."

Of course, given that this administration is headed by oilmen, and that Iraq has the second largest petroleum reserve in the world, perhaps the "liberation" of its resources is exactly what they have in mind.

At home, we've got a linguistic issue on our state ballot this year: Amendment 31.

As I read it, it generally requires that instruction in our public schools be given in English, thus eliminating bilingual education.

If I were dictator of Colorado, I'd revise the state standards so you could not pass 8th grade until you were fluent in Standard English (the dialect of business letters and newspaper columns), at least one other common dialect of English
(Legalese, Educanto, Ebonics, Blue Collar, etc.) and one non-English language, like Spanish, German, Latin, Nuche, Italian or Mandarin Chinese.

As advocates for Amendment 31 put it, "children can easily acquire full fluency in a new language ... if they are heavily exposed to that language in the classroom at an early age." That's the best time to learn other languages. We'd understand our own language better if we knew another, and we'd understand our world better if we knew more languages.

Would it be possible to offer that much language in grade school? I'm proposing only three, and two are closely related.

Our older daughter, Columbine, spent a year in Iceland as an exchange student about a decade ago. You don't pass eighth grade there until you're fluent in five languages: Icelandic, of course; Danish (Iceland used to be a colony of Denmark), English (especially for the college-bound, because there aren't many high-level textbooks written in Icelandic), and two more, usually German, French or Spanish (Icelanders like to vacation in Spain during their long, dark winters).

So it's possible - the country with the highest literacy rate in the world requires the mastery of a multitude of languages in grade school. For my part, even though English is my livelihood, often I wish I'd had more than a year of high-school German and such Spanish as I've been able to absorb over the years.

But I'm not likely to become dictator, so we're back to Amendment 31. Even though I'd like to see widespread fluency in many languages, who could quarrel with the goal of English fluency for all?

However, Amendment 31 relies on what is called "parental enforcement" - parents can sue and recover money if instruction isn't in English, and educators could be barred from teaching for five years.

Our daughters had an outstanding teacher, Loretta Ordaz, now retired but then the subject of some folk wisdom at Longfellow Elementary: "Dot your i's and cross your t's, Ms. Ordaz is hard to please."

On the weekly spelling list for second-graders, she'd throw in a few Spanish words: amarillo, mariposa, viejo, even salida. I found it quite educational to go over the list with the kids.

Under Amendment 31, she could have lost her job for that. That's reason enough to oppose it. Good teachers are rare, and we ought to protect them, not contrive new ways to harass or fire them.

Ed Quillen of Salida (ed@cozine.com) ) is a former newspaper editor whose column appears Tuesday and Sunday


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