Memo From Mexico | Learning English Here And There

English language instruction is a big business in Mexico because many Mexicans want to learn English.

There are private institutes here that provide English instruction, there are private tutors that teach it, there are English-language books and magazines available in many stores.

Practically all families in the Mexican middle and upper classes send their children to private schools.  In these private schools, in which I have worked for years, English and computer science are the most sought-after subjects by the tuition-paying parents. Some private schools here have some very intensive English programs, a few even offer more hours in English than in Spanish.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that any native English-speaker with a body temperature above room temperature could make some money here as an English instructor.

It might actually be easier for Mexicans to study English here in Mexico than in the U.S.A.   More and more and more Mexicans in the U.S. aren't learning English.

Why should they? There are growing Spanish-speaking enclaves throughout the world's largest English-speaking country. In these enclaves, English is not necessary.

I have a Mexican friend who visits the U.S. frequently. He says he would like to practice English, but when he goes to LA everybody he's with speaks Spanish.

Mexican immigrants can speak Spanish on their jobs, Spanish at the store, and go home and watch Univision or another Spanish-speaking network.

Our politicians (of both parties) cater to U.S. citizens in the Spanish language. Even the National Rifle Association has opened up a Spanish-language website.

It used to be that just about every young Mexican sent to study English abroad went to the United States. But now a growing percentage study in Canada instead. Several years ago, I heard a representative of a Canadian English program speaking to students. She told them it was better to study English in Canada, because in the U.S. so many people speak Spanish and it's an official language of the country. Not too far from the truth, actually.

A prime exhibit of America's linguistic problem is the dispute this past school year in California, over the high school exit exam.

In order to graduate high school, California students were required to pass the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam) by scoring higher than 55 percent on an 8th-grade math exam and 60 percent on a 10th-grade English exam.

But by the end of the school year, there were still about 46,000 college seniors who hadn't been able to pass it. They were non-native speakers of English who still didn't have a high enough level of English proficiency. (So what were they being taught in?)

Naturally, this resulted in a lawsuit against the school system, brought by students who had failed.

When I was in high school, I can't recall any of my colleagues even considering a lawsuit against the school because they failed an exam.

Mainstream press news articles about the case were quite predictable, painting the poor students who failed as victims.

In May, a meddling California judge ruled against the exam. [Judges ruling blocks exit exam,  Nanette Asimov and Bob Egelko San Francisco Chronicle May 12th, 2006] but by the end of the month, the California Supreme court had upheld it.

So a journalist got to write a tear-jerker article about students who didn't get a diploma because they didn't pass the exit exam. [For some, exit exam taints rite of passage By Shirley Dang Contra Costa Times, June 09, 2006]

Kudos to California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, the hero of this saga. As a state senator O'Donnell wrote the exit exam law. Later, as state superintendent he fought all along to maintain the exit exam, to retain some kind of standard in California education. http://www.cde.ca. xygov/eo/ Drop him a line communications@cde.ca.gov and let him know you appreciate it.

This attack on a simple exit exam is bad enough. But, even worse, one of the articles revealed how the California test is conducted:

"Students who speak little English may have the test directions read to them in their home language. They may also use a hand-written glossary when taking the test, but only if there is no explanation of the English word beyond its exact translation. And they may take all day to finish." [Exit exam a test of determination  | Language barrier adds unfair burden, critics say of requirement, By Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, February 27, 2006]

So despite the fact that they are given instructions in Spanish (and other languages), despite the fact that they have all day to complete the exam, despite the fact that they get to have their own hand-written glossary (in my day we called that a "cheat sheet"), there were still 46,000 who failed!

I teach English in Mexico, and I don't run my classes like that. In my classes, I speak English. I don't recognize Spanish in my class. If a student speaks to me in Spanish, I answer "What?"

To further strengthen the Anglo ambience I anglicize my students' names. Carlos becomes Charles, Alejandra becomes Alexandra, Pedro becomes Peter, Maria becomes Mary, Raul become Ralph, etc.

Other names, such as Andrea and Hector, are spelled the same in both languages, but pronounced a little differently. In my classes, I pronounce them as we pronounce them in English.

My students understand that Mr. Wall's class is an English-Only zone. And they get into it. They're being challenged to learn.

It becomes like a game. On occasions, a non-English speaking school employee has entered the classroom on some kind of school business.  My students have yelled to him "In English!"

When I listen to a student struggling to tell me something in English – something he can't quite verbalize but is making the effort to – then I know he is acquiring English.

I figure if you want them to learn English, get serious about them hearing and practicing English. Don't coddle them with the bilingual stuff.

It's better linguistically. If you really want to acquire a language, don't translate – think in the target language.

When I  teach vocabulary I demand real definitions. If I ask "What is the definition of the word house?" and a student answers "casa" – that's  a wrong answer.

The word "casa" is a Spanish translation of house, it is not a definition. A definition would be "a structure in which people live" or something like that.

Yet in California, they allow students taking the exit exam to use a Spanish-English glossary! And they still fail!

They'd be better off studying English in Mexico. They might learn more.

As a nation, what can the U.S. do about this?

Obviously, the first thing to do is cut immigration. We are just taking in too many immigrants to assimilate. When they're not learning English, they're not assimilating.

English has been the language of America since John Smith got off the boat at Jamestown 399 years ago. If we ever cease to be English-speaking, we won't be the same nation.

Why should U.S. taxpayers have to pay for immigrants and their children to learn English?

Along with reducing immigration levels, we should put the burden of knowing English on the immigrant. Passing an English exam ought to be a requirement for all future immigrants – or at least heads of families.

Foreign university students, after all, are compelled to pass the TOEFL exam   before studying at American universities.

How about an English test for all prospective immigrants?

Those who fail don't get in.

That'd be a great incentive. They could prepare for it by studying English in one of my classes in Mexico.

American citizen Allan Wall (email him) resides in Mexico, with a legal permit issued him by the Mexican government. Allan recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq with the Texas Army National Guard. His VDARE.COM articles are archived here; his FRONTPAGEMAG.COM articles are archived here his "Dispatches from Iraq" are archived here his website is here.