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An Opinion on Bilingual Education

"Learning another language
will actually bring cultures together"

by Stephen J. Pollard
Irving, Texas

Stephen J. Pollard: My name is Stephen J. Pollard and I have been in education six years, three of which as a Spanish teacher and three as a bilingual teacher. I presently work in the Irving Independent School District in Irving, Texas at J.O. Schulze Elementary. I teach a self-contained third grade bilingual class. I have a BA in business and a MA in Spanish Literature both from the University of North Texas. I am currently the bilingual lead teacher at my school for the intermediate grades, 3-5.

Ron Unz has just eliminated bilingual education in California. In addition, I have just learned that Ron Unz supporters are planning strategy to disrupt bilingual education in Arizona. Just this last Spring Linda Chavez and her Center for Equal Opportunity were soliciting people for a lawsuit against Albuquerque's bilingual program enticing them to join as plaintiffs with a reward of $10,000 in damages. What does this tell me? It tells me that when you cant find anyone to willingly support your ideology, you bribe them or as is the case of Ron Unz, you invest millions in a public opinion campaign against what you dislike. It is this type of false propaganda and desperate actions that we have to counter as supporters of English language learners and bilingual education.

Bilingual educators continue to hear the ineffectiveness argument from the English Only movement. The attacks we suffer are not because the programs are totally ineffective. Some indeed are, I admit. Nothing is perfect. The attacks come from those who can not stand to live in a pluralistic society made up of different languages and ideas. The attacks come from those that see language diversity as somehow a threat to democracy and divisive. Do some have such an inferiority complex to believe that someone is conspiring against them just because they choose to speak another language? By the way, English will and should be the dominant language of the U.S. but at the exclusion of all others?

The ignorance and bias blinds those that oppose bilingual education. Leo Sorensen, the chairman of English Language Advocates, ELA, in a newsletter sent out March 23, 1998 urges all who support English, as if we don't, to write Congress and lobby for the end of "cancerous" bilingual education programs. He uses anecdotal evidence to drive his case home. Then he states that he supports being bilingual, but cautions, "Without a base of knowledge in one language, it is nearly impossible to master others." He just validated why bilingual education exists! Since many children have a base of knowledge in a language other than English, we need to nurture and expand on that knowledge while gradually teaching the academic English skills necessary to be a successful member of American society.

The English Only movement does not care to learn about successful theory and methodology no matter how convincing it is. To the members of this movement, bilingual education is something very sinister and subversive. They spread their fear. The media plays on this fear and the children suffer.

What is it that strikes such fear in the hearts of the English Only movement that it resorts to such irrational and zealous acts in its support of a monolingual society? I have come to understand that some support English Only initiatives because people see bilingual education as a way to "un-Americanize" the United States. Bilingual education leads to the un-Americanization of the United States? This leads me to more questions. Who is American? What does that person look like? Can that person only speak one language? Does that person's heritage have to be Indo-European? If it's not, should we ignore the ancestral culture and language and simply focus on what is perceived to be American, apple pie, the pilgrims, and so forth? Should we remind the students how Hispanic some of the origins of the U.S. are? Do the opponents think that I and all other bilingual educators want to usurp the American democracy and create a new America? Bilingual education simply uses a native language in the service of English...nothing more, nothing less. There are no conspiracies here.

The claim that language is divisive is, too, a misconception. Rarely are wars fought over language. Cultural divisions occur because of misunderstandings between ethnic groups not because they speak a different language. Religious and territorial disputes are much more divisive than language ever will be. Learning another language will actually bring cultures together.

Perhaps the detractors of bilingual education are afraid that they will lose power. Maybe they fear that English will lose its dominance. Probably more than anything I believe they fear they won't fit in with the new face of society. Society just like language is dynamic and ever-changing. We are witnesses to huge demographic shifts and instead of resisting these shifts, I suggest that the opponents of bilingual education work with us to help the diverging cultures come together by supporting a multilingual, multicultural education system.

The time has come for the English Only movement to promote what it stands for, English. To do this, they too must support bilingual education. To do anything else would be to promote only the acquisition of conversational English which does nothing to help the child progress academically. Is that what they want?

Also by Stephen Pollard:

Published in In Motion Magazine August 29, 1998