Sunday, May 8, 2011

Perceived Threat: Bilingualism

Jessie Pimentel

     While Latinos have been often made to be invisible members of American society and culture, when convenient, they have been brought out of the shadows only be to play the part of the villain, threat or non-American other that, “collectively”, refuse to participate in becoming fully American. Historically, Latinos have been labeled as non-American because of supposed barriers that hold Latinos back from taking advantage of the American dream. Rather than desiring a house and white picket fence, Latinos are marked members of the United States, for they are presumed to not want to be apart of the process of upward mobility, rather, they are acknowledged with only maintaining their culture and language, which ultimately holds ties to countries that can not be part of the American dream. Therefore, if Latinos are believed to refuse and contest the notion of ‘becoming American’, despite the many barriers created by Anglos to prevent assimilation for immigrants and native born Latinos alike, than they are to be attacked through what is believed to be the unifying force between all Latinos from every country: the Spanish language. In the United States, the war against Spanish has sparked and moved to most states through the ‘English only’ movement that seeks to make English the official national language of America by banishing bilingualism in the country in every form possible. However, the English only initiative has successfully has targeted Latinos and their children by way of legally removing bilingual education from numerous schools, thus presuming that English immersion is the best way to go to make Latinos forcefully assimilate to American culture.

     To begin, I want to give a brief description of the force known as the ‘English only initiative’. The English only movement began around 1986 with local organizations forming due to fear of English becoming an endangered language. The presence of Spanish speakers in grocery stores, schools and hospitals ultimately was observed as a quiet overtaking of American society. Many Anglo Americans described their stance to be along the lines of feeling like a foreigner in their own home. One of the first grassroots organizations was called “English first”. According to the English first website, their goals are simple, “Make English America's official language, give every child the chance to learn English, eliminate costly and ineffective multilingual policies, ‘Learn the Language, Live the Dream’ is as self explanatory as "English First" itself” (English First).

     While, this threat is not outwardly described using clear racist rhetoric against Latinos, rather it presents the threat of the Spanish language as one that will not allow Latinos to integrate into American society and therefore not participate in upward mobility. So incorrectly and offensive is the belief that the English language is the only barrier keeping Latinos in the lower to lower middle class status and that Latinos have the option to choose learning standard English in classrooms or designated learning facilities. If it were true that the English language was the only barrier keeping people of color separated in terms of economic and social status, than the only classes that would exist in American society would be between English and non-English speakers. Yet, it is important to examine the goals of the organization “English first” in order to understand that there are numerous misunderstandings of the Spanish language and collective Spanish speakers that live in the United States including financial cost of bilingual education facilities and the belief that the English only movement is genuinely concerned with the future of Latino children. The debate on bilingual education, specifically, English immersion and how its usage in schools with large Latino populations, is ultimately going to have a severe repercussion on the opportunities for Spanish speaking children.

     Immersion of any kind has not been met with the same success that it is usually praised with by English only organizations. Obviously, English immersion implies taking Spanish speaking children and teaching them in English only rather than utilizing their native languages to learn effectively. In essence, Spanish speaking children are taught using English without taking into consideration the very likely possibility that the children are not really learning important contexts involved in the English language, rather they are listening, memorizing and regurgitating. Placing a student who is having difficultly with basic math, like adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying will most likely not succeed in an advanced calculus class by merely immersing him/her in the classroom without addressing easier math concepts that are taught before. In Brown Tide Rising by Otto Santa Ana, the concept of English immersion as one that is presented to public schools as being a savior of Spanish speaking children is challenged as she describes English immersion as misunderstood through the metaphor “language as water”.

“The ENGLISH AS WATER metaphor is reified in everyday talk, and reinforced by references to immersion: ‘Just drop them into an English-only class and they'll soak it up. They'll be spouting English in no time;’… Within the logic of the WATER metaphor, however, the formation of linguistic as well as educational practices is as fast as it is fluid. These mistakes lead to another. The second-language development of language minority students is reflexively normed on the illusory speed and effortlessness of a ‘normal’ student, a monolingual, English-speaking, middle-class child” (210)

     Following Santa Ana’s view of immersion through the metaphor of ‘English as water’, immersion into English is bombarded with positive justifications from English only organizations as being useful for Spanish speaking children to assimilate in public schools, often ignores the possibility that immersion could be the cause of holding Spanish speaking children back because they have to suddenly go back to under funded public school bilingual classes and be taught in a new method and expected to be able to speak English perfectly within a year. Bilingual education is believed to be the source of mass spending from the state, which is a false assumption that feeds into the fear that if middle class Anglo children can learn French and Italian, why can’t Latinos do the same with English? Yet again, lack of accessibility to efficient English learning facilities for lower to lower middle class Latinos is ignored and replaced with the notion that Latinos just do not want to be American. Latinos are perceived as merely ‘taking and taking’ but not contributing back to society.

     Furthermore, in Latino Immigrant Parents and the Hegemony of Proposition 227, Marta Baltodano states, “…the issues of language rights in the United States must be understood beyond simple questions of educational preferences. Instead, as Sandra Del Valle (2003) advocates, a reformulation of community activism among Latino immigrants and other linguistic minorities must begin to take place and be understood in terms of cultural and linguistic survival… the revitalization of linguistic rights for immigrant and bilingual communities will depend on the ability of Latino immigrants to organize politically… and to initiate systematic litigation – litigation that must, once again, challenge the unconstitutionality of language rights repression in the United States” (7). The debate on language consists much more than just how teaching methods are used in the classroom, they say much more about the fear that Anglos have on losing dominant power that has often been encumbered by the “American dream”. Those that can participate are suspected white, middle to upper middle class, English speakers, who are not targeted using legislation. Latinos on the other hand, are always tied down with the belief that they are uniformly connected to their home countries (where their families are from) despite the fact that many Latinos are born and naturalized in the U.S daily. Therefore, one must ask why the Spanish language is particularly targeted as a creator of division. Why than are historical social divisions not questioned by English only supporters?

     It seems to be that the only place in which Latinidad or any form of Latino culture, including language, can fit into American culture is in superficial things like, Anglo enjoyment of stereotypical Latino food, or criminalized characters on television. But if individuals who understand that they and their culture is being generalized for bad character continue to combat initiatives like prop 227 and more recently SB 1070 in Arizona, than Latinidad in the United States can prevail as being more than a marked “non-American” culture. The shift in observing Latinos as non-cooperative members of our society can change with more Latino figures rising to power and making it clear that targeting the Spanish language does no more than add to the differences between people that the English only movement claims to want to rid of. Additionally, the belief that there is something essentially singular about Latinos must be combated within the Latino community itself. With more and more advertisements of “Ingles sin Barrera’s” convincing Latinos that they must conform to whiteness only assists to divide the Latino community. Again, in order to change the perception that Latinos can not participate in American culture, one must question what it means to be American in the first place.

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