Sunday, April 24, 2005

Off-site Essay: Loco, Completamente Loco

I've got a personal anecdote to introduce this week's off-site essay. It's a pertinent anecdote since it's about something that the author of the essay touches upon. I'm offering this anecdote as a validation to his claims.

When I was in the fifth grade, my family filled out a survey from my school. The survey asked a number of questions including one that asked whether or not any other languages were spoken in our home.

My mom's first language is Spanish. Now, just to forestall you leaping to any conclusions, I should mention that her family has been living in (what would eventually become) the U.S. since the 16th century (take that Daughters of the American Revolution!); it's simply that they've lived in a state of relative isolation from the rest of the country that only really ended in the 1940's as a consequence of World War II. It is for this reason that my mother didn't pick up English until she was already eleven years old (acquiring a degree of fluency that is genuinely astonishing).

As you might expect, mom tended to speak with her siblings and her parents in her native tongue, generally during phone calls because my father (an Anglo) objected to being excluded from conversations. These chats that my mom had with her family were completely opaque to me because my command of Spanish is limited to Mexican restaurant menus. I had the chance to learn it, of course, but by the time I was five I categorically refused to have anything to do with it, mainly because none of my friends spoke Spanish — a choice that I have long since come to regret.

At any rate, the school got back the survey and took note of the fact that Spanish was spoken in my home (however tertiarily). This raised a bright red flag. So one day, without warning or preamble, I was summoned out of my regular classroom and told that I needed to take a test with some other students in order to determine whether or not I was proficient in English or whether I should be shunted into a bilingual education class. I was rather nonplussed by this (and, later, amused) given that I had already been tested as having a high school level proficiency back in the third grade. By this point, I was reading college English texts in my spare time.

My objections, to my immense frustration, fell on deaf ears and I was forced to go along with the silly exercise. That was the end of the story, for me. I easily proved I could comprehend the lingua franca of my culture and was allowed to go back to being an ordinary student in an ordinary class. Since then, I've wondered about the other kids. None of them were my friends, so I don't know how many, if any, of them were compelled to take bilingual ed.

Not everyone has great English skills and not everyone is good with those kinds of tests. I knew plenty of kids whose first language was English who would have been challenged by the questions on the test. Of course, those kids weren't required to demonstrate that they could understand the language. It seems to me that a lot of kids whose English skills weren't any worse than their monolingual peers could, very well, have been required to take classes taught in a language that they might not even have known well or, in fact, at all (considering that I couldn't even have counted to ten in Spanish but I was considered a candidate by default).

I think that bilingual education &mdash at least the sort that tends to be taught in most districts, which is known as transitional bilingual education, or TBE &mdash is an excellent example of good intentions and soft-headed thinking triumphing over empirical evidence and pragmatism. The problem is that the focus of TBE is not on getting children up to speed in English but, rather, to keep kids "comfortable" by, essentially, removing English instruction from their educations altogether. The end result is that kids end up being consigned to linguistic ghettos.

Today's external link is to a 1998 article in Reason magazine that explores the issue. Be warned, Reason is very much a Libertarian publication with a definite political agenda and more than a little of that view comes across in this article. Never the less, I think that the article, on the whole, makes some very good points and provides some excellent examples of what's wrong with the current state of bilingual education (there has been progress since 1998, but TBE is still alive and kicking, unfortunately). Whenever I re-read this article I feel a slight shudder when I realize how close I actually came to being caught up in that mess.

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