Bilingualism -- are you for it or against it?

By , Education editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Why is it that so many US citizens are not bilingual, and further, don't want to support bilingualism in their public schools? Also, why is it that even many citizens who are fluent in a second language don't want public elementary and secondary schools to provide bilingual schooling for all pupils?

I've talked with people who do favor bilingualism, and who not only support the concept, but actually work to see that programs are available and effective.

I'm more often engaged in discussion by those who do not want to support teaching in two languages, however, and who only grudgingly support a bilingual program if its purpose is to switch the student to English and not to maintain his original language.

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I've decided that the "blame" for the lack of support for bilingualism may be placed on Hitler and Bismarck.

Up until World War I, German was the seclanguage in the United States, and was both taught as a language and used as a medium of instruction. Just as today students in high school study English, so then students studied German grammar and literature as well as English language and literature.

At that time, Latin was included in almost all secondary school curricula, and all college preparatory students were expected to study at least two foreign languages.

Then Bismarck, World War I, the reduction in German-speaking immigrants, and the cutback in the teaching of German in the schools. For the most part,it was only students expecting to major in mathematics and physical science who continued their study of German, but more the study of the written than the spoke word.

Bit by bit, the teaching of German picked up again, and by the late 1930s many secondary school students, particularly those preparing for further education, were once more bilingual, some of them in German/English, some in French/English.

Then Hitler. This time German -- as a required school subject -- disappeared. It is my thesis, then, that were we still speaking and studying German in our schools, it would be only natural to include Spanish with the new wave of immigrants and refugees from the Caribbean and Mexico.

But for most of us, bilingualism is "strange." Almost "un-American," if you will. (Again, for this nationalistic isolationism I "blame" Hitler and Bismarck.) Our new Spanish-speaking neighbors, many of them speaking a Spanish as "bad" as the South German spoken 80 years ago by poorer immigrants, not only want to learn English, they want to learn Spanish, too.

And they want the schools to help them. They want the schools to provide bilingual teachers so the children can be taught more swiftly and comfortably, and they want their children to retain their own culture while learning another.

Of course, it costs more to teach in two languages and to provide text materials in two languages. There are those in the US who feel fully justified in saying that the responsibility of the public schools is the teaching of English -- providing the youngsters with fluency in the dominant language of the country. They argue that if the Spanish-speaker wants to maintain his language, learn better Spanish, or both, this is hiw own responsibility, and not a service that neighborhood public schools need to take on.

Yet there are others, recognizing that some 10 percent of all US citizens are of Hispanic origin, who say it is important for not only Hispanics but all US citizens to be bilingual. And further, that the second language for most should be the first language of the fastest-growing minority -- Spanish.

A visit to a truly bilingual school -- my thought goes to a recent visit to a Spanish/English school in East Los Angeles where the Japanese director of bilingual education was fluent in both Spanish and English -- certainly lends credence to the argument for bilingualism, whatever the cost.

Everyone in the school, with the exception of the two reporters, was bilingual. Even the youngest students moved easily from Spanish to English and back.

Perhaps it's time to put Bismarck and Hitler far behind us.

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