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English, Sí, But Let's Leave The Politics Out

Myriam Marquez

April 28, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

A hundred years ago, immigrants stopped speaking their native language and -- presto! -- they became fluent in English. That's the myth driving today's resistance to bilingual education.

This nation's history is more complicated. In fact, a century ago, there were more than 400 foreign-language newspapers in this country, connecting with a large cross-section of immigrants, from Tampa's Italians and Cubans to Chicago's Polish and Swedish immigrants, to Pennsylvania's Germans to New Mexico's Spaniards and Mexicans to California's Chinese.

And their kids?

Well, sure, they were immersed in English -- if they went to school. To compare the America of a century ago with today's grueling, globally competitive environment misses the point.

There's a slew of research, most notably a long-term study by George Mason University Professor Virginia Collier that tracked thousands of students learning English through 12th grade. Those studies clearly show that when bilingual-education programs, particularly dual-language programs, are done correctly, they enhance a student's fluency in English far beyond what other programs can do.

Unfortunately, nativist fears keep getting in the way of solid research. Kids keep getting lost in a sea of political hang-ups until they drop out.

Puerto Ricans bring an altogether different issue to the school-house door, as the recent Sentinel series noted about the U.S. commonwealth's political struggles with English-language instruction. Ideally, Puerto Rico's public schools would teach more English so that kids moving to the mainland wouldn't miss a beat.

But with tens of thousands of kids -- two-thirds of them Spanish speakers -- learning English in Central Florida schools, we can't afford to wait for the island to lead.

What's lacking is the political will to move the debate beyond the divisive clash of cultures to one that embraces multilingual instruction for anyone who desires it -- not just Puerto Ricans or immigrants from, say, Venezuela or Croatia, but for all children.

Florida continues to rely on English for Speakers of Other Languages programs in which teachers use visual aids for students to learn English. It's better than sink or swim, but barely. Creating further tension among stressed teachers, they're stuck with the tab for ESOL training.


As Collier's study shows, immersion works well for conversational knowledge, but true literacy takes about six years. Bilingual education can bridge that gap.

Gov. Jeb Bush should be leading the charge for more high-quality bilingual ed. He and his Mexican wife, Columba, speak more Spanish than English to each other. He understands the nuances of language and culture, the difficulty of learning a new language. Yet it took state Rep. John Quiñones to open Bush's eyes last year to the challenges Puerto Ricans and other bright young people face in passing the Florida Comprehensive

Assessment Test to graduate.

Fluency takes time, effort, and yes, more money to train teachers and to pay them what they're worth. The result will be a better-prepared work force needing fewer state services.

With high-stakes tests driving the debate and the politics of identity dividing people, Florida needs a leader willing to debunk ideas stuck in 1900. The Education Governor can get us there -- if he's serious about results.

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