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U.S. Should Encourage Many Tongues
By Bonnie Erbe
January 10, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- When my cousin, Rafael, fled to the United States as a refugee from Castro's government in 1961, he already spoke fluent English. There were two sisters in his Cuban hometown of Bayamon who inexpensively tutored the local children in English. Rafael's father, an impoverished immigrant who moved to Cuba from Eastern Europe in 1923, scraped together the funds to make sure his children spoke English.
Things have changed dramatically for today's non-English speaking immigrants and for their children. Affordable private tutors, plentiful in my cousin's childhood, are now as rare as typewriters. As a result, more immigrants are making do without learning English -- many more who want to take subsidized adult education English classes are turned away for lack of space.
Spending time in Puerto Rico, where English is not the predominant language, is a lesson in multiculturalism and in the value of multilingualism. It is odd enough to be an American unable to communicate fluently in a territory of one's own country (I speak Spanish -- enough to get around but certainly not fluently). It is odder still to listen to one's blood relations speak English with Latin accents as thick as the walls of Old San Juan's 17th century El Morro fort.
Stateside a cantankerous debate rages on bilingual education in public schools. Most Democrats (including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus) back it. Republicans generally oppose it. Both sides have it wrong.
Voters in several states approved propositions in recent years (including California and Arizona) banning or vastly limiting bilingual instruction. Bucking that trend, Colorado turned back such a referendum in the November elections. President Bush proposes to rid federal law of a stipulation giving preference to bilingual over English-only education.
Bilingual education programs teach immigrant children in their native tongue as well as in English until they can speak English. In Republican-backed English immersion programs, children are given a year or less of some instruction in their native tongue, and then, ready or not, plunged into English-only classes.
Both philosophies boast persuasive as well as flawed points. Bilingual education is based on the gossamer premise English and the child's native language are of equal cultural prestige and importance.
"When in Rome . . . ," one had better learn Italian or get out. Similarly any immigrant who wants to succeed stateside (i.e., to rise above the level of indentured servitude) must learn English.
At the same time, English-only advocates practice a form of American chauvinism that threatens our international prepotency. They myopically believe it is only important for American students (and by inference, adults) to speak one language -- ours.
English monolingualism is based on the quickly evaporating myth English is the only language that counts. It discounts language diversity and ignores the growing importance of multilingualism as a resource for American business and U.S. security interests.
True, English is the world's lingua franca, but it is not the most widely spoken language. Chinese, with more than 1 billion speakers, holds that title. English is second, with about one-half billion speakers, roughly the same number of native Hindustani and Spanish speakers.
English-only advocates ignore our increasingly multilingual global economy. To continue as the world's superpower, Americans must be as well versed in foreign language as we are in business skills, in technological and medical advances and in military prowess. If we want to quash al-Qaida we cannot leave our State Department so bereft of Arabic speakers that we publicly announced a shortage of them after 9/11. Consider this: Osama bin Laden certainly does not lack for English-speaking terrorists.
Instead of fighting over whether immigrant children should be taught in English, Spanish or Senegalese for that matter, Congress and the administration should make sure all American children graduate from high school fluent in two, three or four languages.
Students graduating from schools in European Union countries are routinely multilingual. Europeans have suffered no loss of national identity or pride as a result. But the EU muscles greater economic clout than any of its member countries could have mustered alone.
Instead of arguing over whether to teach immigrant children in English or Spanish, we should make sure all Americans speak a range of tongues. It's a skill from which my cousin Rafael profited handsomely and one that's becoming more critical all the time.
Bonnie Erbe, host of the PBS program "To the Contrary," writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.