Sunday, May 8, 2011

English for the Children

by Emily Hacala

California's Proposition 227, passed in 1998, effectively replaced bilingual education programs with new English "immersion" programs. The new immersion programs intended to quickly teach English to non-native speakers by placing LEP (limited English proficiency) students into English only classrooms in which their native languages will be prohibited. By doing this, proponents of the immersion programs hope for their students to become functionally proficient in English within a year, therefore ideally being able to use the academic English that many believe is necessary to achieve success in the United States.

The campaign that pushed for Proposition 227, sponsored by Ron Unz and nicknamed "English for the Children," claimed that, "all children in California public schools shall be taught English as rapidly and effectively as possible" (Santa Ana, p.198). This was specifically aimed at the Latin@ children that dominated public school classrooms in California, and whose lack of proficient English skills were (incorrectly) blamed on a faulty bilingual education system. As Santa Ana points out in the article "Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse," the Prop 227 campaign not only focused on language acquisition, but also invoked images of nationhood and an "interweave of language science and language politics" (Santa Ana, p.198). By doing so, the pro-227 campaign was framed as being very beneficial to the eventual success of the children in its English immersion programs; opponents of the proposition were villainized as trying to deny English to non-native speakers, thereby denying them of potential future successes.

Those that were against the passing of Proposition 227, largely backed by linguists and other educational organizations, unsuccessfully attempted to inform voters about the main flaws in the arguments for English immersion instead of bilingual education. The teaching methods implemented via Prop 227 assume that children can acquire a new language (English) in a very short time period (one year), which is unfortunately not typically how second-language acquisition works. Furthermore, this new program reassigns bilingual education as a learning disability; Baltodano's article "Latino Immigrant Parents and the Hegemony of Proposition 227," points out that "bilingual education is no longer perceived as a linguistic or educational right, but rather a remedial condition" (Baltodano, p.251). Aside from those just discussed, perhaps one of the biggest flaws with the immersion program is that it utterly denies the validity of languages other than English, especially within a formal education setting.

As a result of this rejection of linguistic validity, many of the families involved in English-acquisition programs fear that their children may lose a sense of individuality or culture by fully assimilating into an English-speaking society. Richard Rodriguez addresses his personal experience with this in "Aria," and comments that, "while one suffers a diminished sense of private individuality by becoming assimilated into public society, such assimilation makes possible the achievement of public individuality" (Rodriguez, p.39). He points out the benefits of children learning English, (namely that they can become a part of American public society), but unfortunately this is not available to children who are unable to acquire near-native fluency in spoken English. Although Proposition 227 may have intended to provide this kind of opportunity to Latin@ children, the actual lack of effectiveness of the program only serves to create unnecessary disadvantages for language minority children in public schools.

The ESL (English as a second language) programs supported by Unz would essentially remove non-native English speakers from bilingual classrooms, place them in an isolated, year-long "immersion" class, then be placed back into a monolingual English class with native English-speakers at the end of the year. Regardless of whether or not these students actually achieve English fluency at the end of the year, they still essentially sacrifice a year of "educational content" other than language, and therefore automatically fall behind the monolingual English students. Bilingual education programs, on the other hand, educate students in a combination of their native language and English, so that they may achieve English proficiency without sacrificing educational content at the same time.

This link, taken from The Onion, shows a series of responses to the elimination of bilingual education for Spanish-speaking immigrants in California. These include statements such as: "it is vital that Spanish-speaking immigrants learn English. How else are they supposed to understand how I want my hedges clipped?" (Oliver Kittridge, lawyer) and "we don't need bilingual education. We just need to speak louder and slower, and finish all sentences with 'comprende'" (Richard Moore, systems analyst). Although these statements are clearly meant as jokes, they play into real fears that many people against bilingual education have voiced. Due to the close link that is often created between language and nationhood, some fear that bilingual education might somehow result in other aspects of culture, such as television or the National Anthem as seen in the cartoon above, becoming portrayed in both English and Spanish, which would serve to diminish some of the "American nationhood."

Even with the implementation of English immersion over bilingual education in many public schools, some are going to even more extreme measures to ensure that their students will learn to speak the "correct," unaccented forms of American English. This CNN video, posted about halfway down the page on a linguistics blog called Language Log, shows several school districts in Arizona that have been firing teachers for speaking what they believe to be English that is ungrammatical or "too heavily accented," because it could (supposedly) negatively influence students who are still developing their English skills. However, the video does not specify that criteria used to determine whose speech is too accented and whose is accented the correct amount.


  1. Ron Unz's initiatives did not force children into using English exclusively. Had that happened, the measures would not have prevailed after their many court challenges. The liberal 9th Circuit Court rejected appeals to nullify federal decisions favoring the California initiative five times. The ballot measures offered common-sense improvements to the education of English learners by requiring that these children receive most of their instruction in English. If you want to learn the details of this movement and how it affected the education of English learners, read my book "English for the Children: Mandated by the People, Skewed by Politicians and Special Interests" (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2013). The book includes 13 pages of small-print documentation.

  2. In today world English is become a global language and we must learn it

    ESL Learning