English only, please
Chicago Sun Times
April 8, 2007


IMMIGRATION | Despite himself, Newt Gingrich has a good point about how to teach native Spanish-speaking students. This writer ought to know; she speaks Spanish and has taught bilingual education.
Newt Gingrich stuck his foot in his English-only-speaking mouth last week in a speech to the National Federation of Republican Women when he said Spanish was "the language of living in the ghetto."

Not good.

But what drove me nuts is that his dumb comment invalidated his original point. He started off with "We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity."

That I can get behind.

For a few years, I was a bilingual teacher, the kind old Newtie would have liked. The kind who insisted on getting my students out of their Spanish comfort zone and into that language of prosperity he so values. The kind other bilingual teachers hated.

My parents -- like many parents who come here to give their kids a better education -- wanted me to speak perfect English; they'd take care of the Spanish part themselves. So off I went to kindergarten knowing only what Big Bird had drilled into me. Guess what? I, like all my other classmates, soaked that English up like a sponge and spoke only Spanish at home.

I vowed that as a bilingual teacher I would push my students hard to become fluent in English, hard enough to get them out of the bilingual education ghetto and into mainstream classes where they could start their lives with U.S.-born peers.

Yes, I used the word "ghetto." It's true: Kids who stay in bilingual education year after year end up getting short shrift. Illinois law says that if a school has 20 or more students who speak the same language, they get "support" in their native language. That support is defined by each school and could range from a fully certified teacher teaching in a certain language to a paraprofessional with special language skills.

The Illinois Resource Center, an organization that supports school districts that provide second-language services, estimates that 150,000 to 175,000 kids all over the state get some form of bilingual or English-as-a-second-language services, with Chicago Public School kids comprising a little less than 50 percent of the total. Spanish, at 80 percent of services provided, is by far the most common native language.

I taught both first grade and high school, and it shocked me how willing some bilingual teachers were to adamantly and passionately keep kids in self-contained Spanish-speaking classes. I'd ask them, "Well, if you keep teaching them in Spanish, when are they going to learn English?" I'd usually get a blank stare. Yet, there I was, teaching algebra to 17-year-olds, including a few who, although born here, had been in bilingual education their entire academic careers and still couldn't speak English!

I was always the weirdo bilingual teacher who was looked at sideways by the other bilingual teachers because I insisted on speaking and teaching primarily in English with some Spanish explanations. And -- can you believe it -- my students picked up English!

First-graders were no problem, but my high schoolers hated it. They'd whine constantly for me to speak in Spanish like all their other teachers. "You're supposed to be talking to us in Spanish," they'd demand. But I wasn't buying it. I'd tell them, "If you want to make it here and not end up mowing lawns or waitressing at Tacos El Norte for the rest of your lives, you'd better start learning." More than a few of them thanked me at the end of the year.

Keeping Spanish-speaking kids in separate but equal programs kept them from interacting with English-speaking peers, further isolating them from the culture they eventually have to be able to navigate for that "better future" their parents sought.

In high school, it was too late. All the bilingual ed kids were so self-segregated they didn't even hang with the U.S.-born Spanish speakers. Homecoming? Prom? Those events were not for them, they believed, they stuck to their own and spoke Spanish to each other.

So, I have to hand it to Newt, even with his foot in his mouth. He's right.

The prevailing wisdom is transitioning students to English through Spanish while giving them core curriculum such as language arts and math in their native language -- often remediating poor Spanish language skills first -- is best. Maybe in a perfect world, with well-run bilingual education programs with high-quality teachers, that would be true. But that's not what I saw. More often than not, when students had to sink or swim, with a little help, they swam.