“English Lessons”

My March 23, 2009 article in The American Conservative on the first decade after the demise of mandatory bilingual education California was never fully on line, so here`s the whole thing.

I was visiting a typical Southern California public high school, one in which the student body is close to three-fourths Latino, when it dawned on me that virtually all the kids’ hallway conversations with friends were conducted in English. Indeed, most of the students spoke English without an accent. Well, to be pedantic, they had teen accents — it’s practically impossible for a high school girl to roll her eyes and exclaim “That is so gay” without sounding a little like Moon Unit Zappa in Valley Girl — but only a minority of the Hispanic students had Spanish accents.

Nor, I recalled, had I heard teachers lecturing in anything but English. I found out later that a couple of percent of all the classes were conducted in Spanish for the children of parents who requested it, but few parents did.

I realized then that I had barely heard any public discussion in half a decade about the once contentious topic of bilingual education. Yet, it had been promoted adamantly by America’s educational and political establishment from 1968, when Congress passed the first of five Bilingual Education Acts, through the 1990s.

I went home and read up on bilingual education. I quickly discovered the topic of educating “Limited English Proficient” (LEP) students is buried under a bureaucratic jargon that appears to consist of literal translations from some distant language unknown to Earthlings. For example, when an LEP child masters English, he becomes a Reclassified-Fluent English Proficient (R-FEP). His R-FEP status is tabulated at the federal Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited-English-Proficient Students (OELALEAALEPS).

Eventually, I discovered that bilingual education is by no means dead. Yet, it has clearly lost the momentum, the sense of inevitability, it long enjoyed.

That means that America may have dodged a bullet, a long-term threat to our national unity, because nothing divides a country more than multiple languages. In contrast, a shared language enables shared sentiments.

In the three decades when America’s great and good actively promoted Spanish in the public schools, giving official blessing to a second language, it seemed plausible that our country was inflicting upon itself something that could turn into another Quebec a generation or two down the road. Or worse, a Kosovo, which was plunged into war in the 1990s by decades of unassimilated illegal immigration from Albania into a Serbian part of the republic formerly known as Yugoslavia.

And, it struck me, the man who did more to head off the dangers posed by bilingual education is a friend of mine. In fact, he’s my boss: The American Conservative’s publisher Ron Unz.

Okay, I’m biased. But a decade after the 61-39 landslide victory of Ron’s initiative, Proposition 227, put bilingual education on the ropes in California, America’s forerunner state, it’s time to review how the seemingly predestined triumph of bilingualism was knocked off track.

The history of educational plans in America is notoriously littered with broken dreams.

Unintended consequences predominate because the reigning dogma of the education industry—the intellectual equality of all students—is wrong. This obdurate refusal on the part of everybody who is anybody in the education business to admit publicly the manifold implications of some kids being smarter than others makes it difficult to get anything done in the real world.

Thus, for example, George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy got together in 2001 to pass the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which mandates that by the 2013-2014 school year, every student in America’s public schools score on reading and math tests at the “proficient” level (roughly, a B+). This, I can assure you, won’t happen.

Yet, the terrible irony about the decades wasted pushing bilingual education is that the conventional wisdom that no child need be left behind is much truer for young children learning English than for anything else in American education. That’s why the otherwise often zany NCLB has helped consolidate the progress initiated by Unz’s pro-English initiatives.

The most popular public rationale for bilingual education — that the children of immigrants need to be taught in their native language so that they don’t fall behind academically while they spend many years learning English — sounds plausible as long as you forget how remarkably good small children are at learning a new language.

Most little kids can pick up a language simply by being immersed in it. But if they wait until high school, it becomes a struggle that many will never overcome.

Linguist Noam Chomsky’s 1950s research showed that very young people have an innate language-learning ability. As he noted by email, “There is no dispute about the fact that pre-puberty (in fact, much earlier) children have unusual facility in acquiring new languages.”

Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, author of the bestseller The Language Instinct, told me, “When it comes to learning a second language, the younger the better…. People who began to learn English at six ended up on average more proficient than those who began at seven, and so on.” Pinker pointed to the famously thick Bavarian accent of Henry Kissinger, who arrived in America at age fifteen. In contrast, his one-year younger brother acquired a nearly perfect American accent. (Walter Kissinger, though, has suggested another reason for the fraternal accent difference: “Because I am the Kissinger who listens.”)

Judith Rich Harris, author of the The Nurture Assumption, pointed out, “The problem with bilingual education is that these programs create peer groups of children who do not speak English well. They don’t have to learn English in order to communicate with the children they want to play with, and they don’t have to learn English in order to be accepted by their classmates. So, their motivation to learn English is no different from their motivation to learn the state capitals or the multiplication tables.”

The hidden reason why bilingual education supporters wanted to drag out the learning of English over many years was to keep Latinos from ever being fully adept in English. The chief donor to the campaign against Proposition 227, for example, was the Republican Italian-American billionaire Jerry Perenchio, then-owner of the giant Spanish-language Univision television network. As Perenchio evidently reasoned, bilingual educations keeps Hispanics chained to Univision.

Similarly, Hispanic political leaders want American-born Latinos to go through life marked by Spanish accents so that they will feel isolated from the American majority … and thus in the need of Hispanic political leaders.

Bilingual education was always widely disliked by the public (a national Zogby poll in 1998 found that 84% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats favored requiring schools to use English immersion), but the bilingual industry succeeded in branding it a civil rights issue, intimidating most would-be opponents.

Unz, a theoretical physicist (who had studied under Stephen Hawking) turned Silicon Valley entrepreneur, had debuted in politics at age 32 by challenging incumbent California governor Pete Wilson for the GOP nomination in 1994. Wilson beat him (and went on to win re-election by 15 points), but Unz garnered 34 percent of the vote. Since Ron may have the least stereotypically political personality I’ve ever come across, I’m still amazed by that percentage, which seems as unlikely as would, say, Babe Ruth having won a bronze medal at the 1928 Winter Olympics in Men’s Figure Skating.

With the help of immigrant parents tired of having their children not taught English, Unz’s English for the Children organization put on the ballot Proposition 227, which made one year of “sheltered English immersion” instruction the default. (Bilingual instruction was only allowed upon a parent-initiated request.) It passed easily, and even won 37 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of Asians.

Unz’s Proposition 203 campaign in Arizona in 2000 showed this was no fluke. With 29 months to learn from their California mistakes, the best that bilingual advocates could come up with for the rematch was to ignore Spanish and campaign against Prop. 203’s impact on the right of Navajos and Hopis to school their children in their own languages. Native Americans didn’t decide to come to the U.S.; instead, the U.S. had decided to come to the Native Americans. This clever tactic cut Prop. 203’s 50-point lead in half, but it still wound up winning 63-37.

Ron’s initiatives were a rare example in recent years of an assertion of cultural self-confidence by the American majority. Proposition 227 meant that California schools were finally told to sell to immigrants what the world wants to buy: the English language.

Immigrant parents understand that English is the language of money, the lingua franca of the global economy. (In Switzerland, for instance, 24% of the work force speaks English on the job). And their children have reacted positively to schools asserting the primacy of English. After all, English is the world’s coolest language, the mother tongue of blockbuster movies.

When the No Child Left Behind bill came up for debate in Congress shortly after Unz’s victory in Arizona, proponents of bilingual education were in disarray. Not a single member of the Hispanic Caucus voted against dumping the 1994 Bilingual Education Act (which had called for “developing the English skills … and to the extent possible, the native-language skills” of LEP students) in favor of a new English Language Acquisition Act as part of NCLB, in which all references to “bilingual education” and “bilingualism” as goals were stricken.

The 2001 NCLB legislation wound up muddled. For example, the law directs that by 2014 every student in the Limited English Proficient category be proficient in English, which isn’t even theoretically possible. Still, the NCLB’s obsession with testing for progress in math and “English language arts” achievement (and penalizing school districts that fall behind) had the salutary effect of making long, drawn-out bilingual programs an expensive luxury.

At least some of the government funding incentives have finally started pointing vaguely in the right direction. Consider Garfield H.S., the 99 percent Latino high school in East L.A., once home to famed calculus teacher Jaime Escalante (played by Edward James Olmos in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver”). Back in the 2002-2003 school year, before the effects of NCLB were fully felt, exactly zero students were reclassified as having become proficient in English. In other words, the Garfield administration wasn’t in the mood to see students learn English. In 2006-2007, though, 155 students were reclassified. This is out of 1862 “English Learners,” so progress isn’t quick. Still, you can at least say it’s up ∞ percent.

[A student, no matter how accent-free in English, can't get reclassifed as no longer being an English Learner until he achieves at least a Basic score on a scale running from Far Below Basic to Advanced on the California Standards Test in all subjects, including math. So, lots of students remain locked into classification as English Learners not because they haven't learned English but because they are below average in intelligence -- a problem, unlike not speaking English, that schools can't do all that much about.]

This de-emphasis on bilingual education hasn’t solved all problems. The test score gaps between ethnic groups remain substantial, and the huge number of illegal immigrants means that many communities are de facto Spanish-speaking.

At least, though, in the decade since Prop. 227, the country has slowly been cutting back on the schools using the taxpayers’ money to make America’s dual language problem even worse.