For Language Training - Study Early and Often

Rosa Delia Gaytan holds up a picture and asks her fourth- and fifth-graders, "Is it a cat?" "No, it isn't!" comes the exuberant response in perfect English. "Is it a dog?" she asks. "Yes," the children answer, "it is!"

In Mexico's larger cities, private bilingual schools have offered generations of middle- and upper-class children an education in English. Access to English early on is an important factor in determining who gets (or stays) ahead. But Ms. Gaytn does not teach at a private school. The Benito Jurez Elementary School is part of a pilot program to better prepare children in this border city for the 21st century.

"We assume that in the future, we'll need more than one language to be more competitive in business and commerce, and the dominant language will be English," says Jos Lpez Montoya, coordinator of North Baja California state's lower-grade English project. "We also feel that introduction to English has to come in the earliest grades for it to stick."

Just as California appears ready to approve a referendum dismantling much of the state's bilingual education, Mexico's Baja California is launching a pilot program under which 400 children in Mexicali, Tijuana, and Ensenada will learn English beginning in the first grade. In one sense, the two neighbors are going in the same direction. Both aim to give Spanish speakers a mastery of English. But the Mexican project is operating on the premise that two languages are better than one.

The need for early language training was uncovered during an extensive education survey of parents, businesses, and social organizations. "We had parents telling us they wanted more English so their children could get better jobs, and we had businesses telling us a better knowledge of ... English will lead to higher productivity," says Baja California's Secretary of Education Virgilio Muoz. Mexico's public schools already require English, but only for three years starting with 12-year-olds. And it's only three hours a week. "Thirty years of experience showed us that the existing system hasn't been successful," Mr. Montoya says. "Our 15-year-olds don't speak English."

Children in the program add 90 minutes to their school day so that "basics" don't get short shrift. The state has budgeted for the program to continue until June 1999. "But many parents have already told us they'll be willing to pay to keep it going if the state decides it can't afford it," Montoya says.

Baja's educators did have to confront a minority that opposed the training as an attack on Mexico's identity. "But we feel ... the best way to defend our ideas, our history, and our culture ... is through a command of English," Mr. Muoz says. "No one's going to stop speaking Spanish."

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