Bilingualism−Bipartisan Blunder
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Letters on Bilingualism

The Associated Press reported on 3/16/2000:

[Clinton Administration] Education Secretary Richard Riley, hoping to create a brighter future for [Hispanic] children, is asking public school districts to establish in the next five years 1,000 new dual-language schools that instruct children in English and in a native language such as Spanish. "If we see to it that immigrants and their children can speak only English and nothing more, then we will have missed one of the greatest opportunities of this new century,'' Riley said Wednesday. ''It is high time we begin to treat language skills as the asset they are.'' Riley said dual language instruction has proven to help Hispanic children do better academically as well as preserve children's heritage and promote bilingualism that can help students in an increasingly global economy. "Unfortunately, too many teachers and administrators today treat a child's native language as a weakness if it is not English,'' Riley said … ''In some places, even the idea of bilingual education is controversial. It shouldn't be.''

Secretary Riley is correct. Bilingual education should not be controversial. Every single American who puts the welfare of poor kids ahead of their own personal career and political interests should abominate it.

As Riley himself shamelessly noted, "Nearly half of foreign-born Hispanic students drop out." After bilingual education's three decades of catastrophic failure, the national political elite can only respond by pouring more fuel on the fire.

Bilingual education is a fraud perpetrated against Hispanic youngsters. Its secret goal is to delay the immigrant student's switchover to English until he's past puberty. As demonstrated by MIT's Steven Pinker, the leading expert on language and the brain, before age 13 a child's mind possesses a remarkable ability to learn new languages. He can absorb new vocabularies, grammars, and accents simply through osmosis as long as he's immersed in the language. But at puberty, the mind's language-learning faculty grows rigid, and the hope of ever losing a foreign accent fades out.

Who profits from preventing immigrant children from learning to speak English well? Spanish-speaking teachers, obviously, since they are paid a premium for their destructive talent. But the villains also include the usual suspects: ethnic activists, grandstanding politicians, diversity sensitivity consultants, and the owners of Spanish-language TV networks, all of whom benefit from churning out more Hispanic-Americans whose broken-English keeps them hard-to-educate, poor, hard-to-assimilate, alienated and resentful of American society. In an Internet-driven 21st century, where English is the global passport to economic success, denying American children the chance to fully learn English is unspeakable.

In June 1998, California's voters gave a 61% landslide to public policy entrepreneur Ron Unz's Proposition 227 outlawing bilingual education. By the end of the following school year, immigrant 2nd graders in those California schools that were already in compliance with Prop. 227 were reading at the 35th percentile, compared to the 19th percentile for those in  schools that were still bilingual.

Although educational research can be complex, and one shouldn't put absolute faith in this set of early results, this is shockingly encouraging data. As education reformers have found to their disillusionment over the years, it is extremely hard to move the needle on honest tests, which is why so many of the trumpeted successes of school reform are based on finagling the tests (e.g., dumbing down the questions each year or sending the not-so-bright kids on a field trip the day of the test). It has proven extremely difficult for schools to make their kids learn more, because scholastic achievement is so strongly linked to the IQ that the students bring to school.

But it's easy to make kids learn less. All you have to do is block them from being immersed in their nation's language. Removing that impediment is the single most effective school reform.

Voters across the nation loathe bilingual education. A national Zogby poll in 1998 found that 84% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats favored requiring schools to use English immersion. A winning issue for some political party, yes? The professional politicians don't seem to think so. In California, both gubernatorial candidates opposed Proposition 227. George W. Bush presents himself as the candidate of bilingualism.

Unfortunately, opponents of bilingual education tend to squabble needlessly among themselves over irrelevancies. For example, Unz wrote a 9,000 word article in the November, 1999 issue of Commentary called "California and the End of White America" explaining how his anti-bilingual education initiative was an integral component in his tripartite master plan for Republicans, along with pro-immigration and anti-affirmative action stances. While interesting as an ideology, and possibly useful as a political strategy, Unz's lumping together three separate issues distracts from the simple point that demolishing bilingual education is a Good Thing, in and of itself.

Disinterested Americans of all political stripes can agree that restricting immigrant kids to the linguistic ghetto of Spanglish is wrong. In technical terms, obliterating dual language schooling is an act of Pareto optimization: it makes some people (immigrant kids) much better off, a lot of people (most Americans) somewhat better off, but nobody worse off (except for ethnic activists, who deserve pain).

We don't have to also agree on immigration or affirmative action. For example, lots of African Americans dislike heavy immigration, but very much favor affirmative action (for themselves, but by no means for immigrants). There is no reason to exclude them from the anti-bilingual coalition.

Similarly, Unz is uncomfortable with allying with the vast majority of whites who want to cut back on immigration. Seduced by early polls showing a majority of California Latinos supporting his initiatives, he liked to say victory would be morally hollow without Latino support. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the La Raza elite still succeeded in racializing the election campaign during its final weeks, and Proposition 227 ended up attracting only 37% of the Latino vote. Thus, Unz managed to diminish the reputation of his own tremendous accomplishment - one of the few heroic political acts of the Nineties, that low, dishonest decade.

In reality, to get rid of bilingualism across the country, native-born blacks and whites will probably have to use their dominance at the polls to impose English-immersion instruction on Hispanic immigrants … while native Anglophones still possess a majority. There is absolutely nothing shameful or morally hollow about this. It's how democratic, self-governing nations stay that way.

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website features his daily blog.]

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