From my article "English Lessons" in the March 23, 2009 issue of The American Conservative:
I was visiting a typical Southern California public high school, one in which the student body is close to three-fourths Latino, when it dawned on me that virtually all the kids’ hallway conversations with friends were conducted in English. Indeed, most of the students spoke English without an accent. Well, to be pedantic, they had teen accents — it’s practically impossible for a high school girl to roll her eyes and exclaim ”That is so gay” without sounding a little like Moon Unit Zappa in Valley Girl — but only a minority of the Hispanic students had Spanish accents.
Nor, I recalled, had I heard teachers lecturing in anything but English. I found out later that a couple of percent of all the classes were conducted in Spanish for the children of parents who requested it, but few parents did.
I realized then that I had barely heard any public discussion in half a decade about the once contentious topic of bilingual education. Yet, it had been promoted adamantly by America’s educational and political establishment from 1968, when Congress passed the first of five Bilingual Education Acts, through the 1990s.
I went home and read up on bilingual education. I quickly discovered the topic of educating ”Limited English Proficient” (LEP) students is buried under a bureaucratic jargon that appears to consist of literal translations from some distant language unknown to Earthlings. For example, when an LEP child masters English, he becomes a Reclassified-Fluent English Proficient (R-FEP). His R-FEP status is tabulated at the federal Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited-English-Proficient Students (OELALEAALEPS).
Eventually, I discovered that bilingual education is by no means dead. Yet, it has clearly lost the momentum, the sense of inevitability, it long enjoyed.
That means that America may have dodged a bullet, a long-term threat to our national unity, because nothing divides a country more than multiple languages. In contrast, a shared language enables shared sentiments.
In the three decades when America’s great and good actively promoted Spanish in the public schools, giving official blessing to a second language, it seemed plausible that our country was inflicting upon itself something that could turn into another Quebec a generation or two down the road. Or worse, a Kosovo, which was plunged into war in the 1990s by decades of unassimilated illegal immigration from Albania into a Serbian part of the republic formerly known as Yugoslavia.
And, it struck me, the man who did more to head off the dangers posed by bilingual education is a friend of mine. In fact, he’s my boss: The American Conservative’s publisher Ron Unz.
Okay, I’m biased. But a decade after the 61-39 landslide victory of Ron’s initiative, Proposition 227, put bilingual education on the ropes in California, America’s forerunner state, it’s time to review how the seemingly predestined triumph of bilingualism was knocked off track.
The history of educational plans in America is notoriously littered with broken dreams. Unintended consequences predominate because the reigning dogma of the education industry–the intellectual equality of all students–is wrong. This obdurate refusal on the part of everybody who is anybody in the education business to admit publicly the manifold implications of some kids being smarter than others makes it difficult to get anything done in the real world.
Thus, for example, George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy got together in 2001 to pass the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which mandates that by the 2013-2014 school year, every student in America’s public schools score on reading and math tests at the ”proficient” level (roughly, a B+). This, I can assure you, won’t happen.
Yet, the terrible irony about the decades wasted pushing bilingual education is that the conventional wisdom that no child need be left behind is much truer for young children learning English than for anything else in American education. That’s why the otherwise often zany NCLB has helped consolidate the progress initiated by Unz’s pro-English initiatives.
The most popular public rationale for bilingual education — that the children of immigrants need to be taught in their native language so that they don’t fall behind academically while they spend many years learning English — sounds plausible as long as you forget how remarkably good small children are at learning a new language.
Read the rest here.