Americans play the fool when we fear languages
By Dr. Delio D. Tamayo-Gomez
The Denver Post,Friday, October 25, 2002
Although the moon has donned her harvest garb many a time since my first
English class in high school in Colombia, I still remember my teacher's early
words: "Languages open our hearts and minds to the wonders of the world."
He was a wise and wonderful man. Having garnered the benefits of enlightened
world living as an international coffee executive, Don Luis Felipe Restrepo
devoted the best of his retirement years to pursue his real passion in life -
teaching poor children. Guiding kids' first steps in foreign languages was his
labor of love. His knowledge was indeed English
and French for the children and his life experiences a beacon lighting our path
into the future. As a beneficiary of his devotion and commitment to us, I hold
his memory in reverence.
"Teacher," as we affectionately called him, would be turning over in his grave
were he to learn that his wise words, rather than opening hearts and minds in
our state, have been molded into something so contentious - "English for the
children," otherwise known as Amendment 31. Nice makeup, ugly looks.
Amendment 31 is not about children. As proposed, it is a mirror exposing our
lust for power and control. It is also a measure of revenge that exploits our
children as unwitting props in order to settle old political scores.
As written, Amendment 31 is an example of what in Spanish we call un adefesio
legal (a legal absurdity). Both Denver dailies, through poignant editorials, as
well as columnists, have shined sharp lights into its contents, unearthing more
than the devil in its details. Harsh penalties for teachers, increased costs and
expanded bureaucracy are just a few of the pitfalls. For me to further plumb
those issues would be to plunge into a feckless tautology. Instead, I want to
tie a rope around its neck and hang it from the tallest tree, because Amendment
31 is divisive, unnecessary and un-American.
Watching us spend socio-political capital fighting over English acquisition
programs must be amusing to polyglot Europeans. For them, learning several
languages while in school is a no-brainer, but for our language-addled society,
the subject is a source of much anguish and discord, especially if Spanish is
involved. It touches one of our country's raw nerves - relations with her
soon-to-be largest ethnic minority. Just before his death, newspaper columnist
Gene Amole marveled at the language skills of Olympic jocks and lamented our
struggle with bilingual education. A struggle begetting pejorative name-calling
such as "vampire." A struggle better understood by reading the Federal Court
Papers keeping DPS in her noose.
A change in the state's constitution would be appropriate if all the strands of
our English-acquisition system were hopelessly frayed. But they are not. Under
present conditions, some programs work better than others, based on their own
To feed our own preferences, we remain privy to studies that go tit-for-tat on
either side until the end of time, with no self-evident conclusions. And as to
the absence of follow-up studies, it might be that they are not necessary. In my
more than 26 years of direct involvement with my Latin immigrant community I
have yet to find a young person who, having gone through any school system in
our state, cannot speak and write English.
Sadly, I cannot make the same statement about their Spanish. And contrary to
assertions by some proponents of Amendment 31, the dropout rate in our children
is less than that for English-speaking Latinos.
Fitting all school districts with the same constitutional straitjacket counters
some of the most successful operating principles in this country, mainly
decentralization and flexibility. Our business structure, the envy of the world,
enables mid- and low-level managers to make their own decisions based on
prevailing circumstances. And the world looks on in
awe at our military, with its field commanders having the ability to adjust to
changing storms on the battlefields.
I favor allowing the field commanders of our educational system - principals -
to alter English-acquisition programs to fit shifting student patterns. If it is
good for the goose, it ought to be good for the gander.
Dr. Delio D. Tamayo-Gomez is a veterinarian in Aurora. An immigrant from
Colombia, he is a U.S. citizen by choice and a member of the Post's Compass