Politics made 'bilingual' a dirty word
North County Times (Escondido, CA)
October 13, 2005


It's been said a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, and those who speak one  language are called Americans.

Although we often express our admiration and respect for those who are  multilingual, we have never made learning a second language a priority  in our public schools.

In fact, in California bilingualism has become a dirty word. This year  marks the seventh anniversary of the passage of Proposition 227. It is  now politically correct to refer to bilingual education as a failure,  ranking right up there with the teaching of reading by sight, rather  than phonics.

Nevertheless, educators continue to disagree over the effectiveness of  English immersion programs versus bilingual education in helping English learners succeed in school. Each side uses its own interpretation of student test scores to prove their case.

Bilingual educators opposed the recent appointment of Oceanside Superintendent Ken Noonan to the state Board of Education. A former  opponent of Prop. 227, Noonan now embraces English immersion as the  best way to close the academic achievement gap for English-language  learners.

While that debate rages on in California, the American Council on the  Teaching of Foreign Languages has declared 2005 the "Year of  Languages," advancing the belief that it's important for every person  in the United States to be proficient in at least one language other  than English.

Foreign language teachers make the case that learning a second language  opens up additional career opportunities in a rapidly expanding global  economy while helping us recognize there are more ways than one to look  at the world, enabling us to be more understanding of those who do not  share our views.

Look no further than the ugly confrontations spawned by the campaign to  protect our borders to see how sorely we need such understanding.

Most other developed countries recognize the importance of proficiency  in a second language by requiring the study of at least one other  language beginning in elementary school. In Canada, for example, French  is a required part of the curriculum, beginning in the fifth grade.  According to the foreign languages council, only about 6 percent of  U.S. students study a foreign language in elementary school.

California high school students headed for a campus at our two public  universities must complete two years of a foreign language. But  studying another language in high school for a couple of years is  unlikely to make a person much more fluent than being able to count,  say hello and goodbye, and read a few menu items.

And what makes us think fluency in another language is any less important for those who do not go to college? They will be living in the same world as college graduates.

Spanish is the first language of about one in four North County residents. In the long run it won't really matter which teaching method  has been used to help English language learners catch up in school.

If it's successful, their bilingualism will prepare them better for success in a multicultural world than their English-only classmates.

Contact North County Times columnist Richard Riehl at RiehlWorld2@aol.com.