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The Truth, Mainly - 01/22/2001

Bilingual education doesn't work? Says who?

Bilingual education, lots of folks are telling us now, doesn't work. Doesn't work in California. Doesn't work anywhere.

So, these folks are telling us now, let's junk the idea that little kids can learn in two languages at the same time. Let's immerse the little tykes in English and if it's too much for their little psyches to go from a Spanish-only home to an English-only school, that's just tough noogies.

Linguistic Darwinism is what we need. Linguistic imperialism.

After all, we certainly don't want to become one of those backward multi-language countries like Switzerland with its three official languages, German, French, and Italian. That's why they yodel funny.

Okay, enough sarcasm.

Let me tell you about a public elementary school in Ft. Collins. It has two names: Harris Bilingual Immersion School, and Centro Escolar Bilingue de Harris.

Here's how bilingual education works there:

It begins with kindergartners. They're much younger than the folks who say bilingual education doesn't work. They're young enough that their little minds are still sponges for soaking up language—a stage they'll grow out of at about puberty.

Entering kindergarten classes are split fifty-fifty: half from English-speaking families, half from Spanish-speaking families.

All the Harris teaching staff speak both English and Spanish. About half are native English speakers. About half are native Spanish speakers.

And get this: Most classes at Harris are conducted in Spanish one week, in English the next. That's throughout the whole school year and for all the students, kindergarten through sixth grade. The only exceptions are reading classes taught in both languages to all students every day.

It's an audaciously bold program—it's called two-way immersion—and wonderful things happen in it. There's no linguistic hierarchy. And without linguistic hierarchy, there's no linguistic Darwinism, no linguistic imperialism.

Within the classroom, both English speakers and Spanish speakers are equally advantaged and disadvantaged. Each group knows how to do what the other is trying to learn to do. And there's no stigma, no sense that you have to learn another language because yours isn't good enough.

That means no wetbacks, no gringos at this school.

One parent writes that when his daughter comes home from Harris, "sometimes she sings songs in Spanish, sometimes in English. When she's invited to friends' birthday parties, some are at Spanish-speaking homes, and some are at English-speaking homes. She is learning at an impressionable age and at a deep level that friendships, learning, and values can cross cultural and language barriers."

So even the parents of the kids get involved in the bilingual game.

When the kids put on a Christmas program for the parents, half the carols are sung in Spanish, half in English.

The Truth, Mainly


Notes from school to parent are routinely in Spanish on one side, in English on the other.

But, some of you may be thinking, surely bilingual education is much more expensive and time-consuming than unilingual education.

Harris has the same amount of staffing, the same budget, and the same instructional time as the other public elementary schools in town.

And you ought watch the little twinks at Harris sometime. They'll knock you out.

Two years ago, my wife and I visited a first-grade class there to see what this bilingual stuff was all about.

My wife used to be an elementary school librarian in Lincoln and she was asked to read something—in English—to the Harris first-graders.

She read Helen Lester's "Tacky the Penguin"—a funny story about a little penguin who insists on going his own way. The first graders—both little Spanish speakers and little English speakers—laughed so hard they nearly wet their little pants.

Then the regular teacher read a Spanish translation of Judith Viorst's story about little Alexander who's having a "terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day." That phrase becomes a refrain in the story and about halfway through, all the kids were shouting it out—in Spanish, of course.

(I'd tell you how they said it, but I can't. I'm disadvantaged by my unilingual elementary school education.)

And throughout the reading of the Viorst story, the first-graders—both Spanish speakers and English speakers—laughed so hard they nearly wet their little pants again.

It was hard to tell if they were laughing in English or in Spanish.

Look at this photo of that first-grade class. See the little girl second from the end on the third row? That's our bilingual granddaughter, Mari the Marvelous. Her Spanish pronunciation is impeccable.

She gives our daughter hell if she sends notes to school that aren't written in both languages.

And the valentines she'll give her classmates next month will be in both Spanish and English. She'll make them herself.

That sounds to me like a working definition of bilingual education that works—in more ways than one.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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