JUAN AT NIGHT:
|THE BILINGUAL DILEMMA|
Kashyapa A. S. Yapa
Terra Bella elementary school in Southern
Central Valley of California serves mostly the children of farm
workers. During a
casual visit there, I found even the kindergarten very silent,
quite the opposite of my experience in primarily Latino
elementary classrooms of Glendale, Arizona. The teacher would fire off questions in English and a
designated kid would mumble a short answer.
During a group exercise, I overheard a faint whispering
of some Spanish words. By
reflex, I leaned over and encouraged the discussion prodding
them with a few questions in Spanish.
The bewildered eyes quickly glowed in relief: the kids
were eager to share with me what they knew. But when I lifted my head, the teacherís fiery stare burned
me to ashes. I had
committed the ultimate sin: used Spanish in the classroom.
Here in Arizona, on the seventh of
November, we too will decide whether Spanish is an ominous or
auspicious omen for our children, our future.
How much do we know about the issue to make a wise
You probably had seen both pro and con
camps use the results from the same test in California to push
each sideís argument. Those
tests are good only for that: to manipulate.
No multiple choice test can measure the childrenís
ability to think, to create, and to resolve.
A profound change in educational philosophy such as
adopting a bilingual program or English immersion deserves a
deeper analysis. Given
the lack of such investigations, let us not swirl some numbers
hoping for the magic answer, but make our decision based on
We have long moved away from kidnapping and
placing minority children in boarding schools, patrolled day and
night by well-meaning pastors who force upon them the dominant
language and the customs. Todayís
parents enjoy, at least in theory, a greater say in how and what
their kids learn. In
that sense, for parents weak in the dominant language, bilingual
education becomes the only recourse left to exercise their say.
If we accept their historical right to live and work in
Arizona (we havenít made Arizona English-only yet, have we?),
how could we deny them the right to know what their kids learn?
Other parents, capable of raising their
children sufficiently fluent in the dominant language, should
still have the choice of bilingual education for their kids.
But why would they choose that?
If you had the privilege of visiting elementary
classrooms either side of the language gulf, you would have
noticed the difference. In
the English-only classroom, the Latino kids manage to survive
but youíd notice many a one stammer.
Their eyes show fear, of being ridiculed for any error in
expression or in accent. They
probably learn the facts faster, as the teacher does not have to
repeat in Spanish, yet they no longer have a hunger for the
knowledge but the fear. The
psychological oppression makes them second rate pupils.
In the bilingual classroom, the kids
express themselves freely, some in English, others in Spanish.
That freedom has given them the power to interact as
equals. Their eyes
glow with the natural fire to explore.
Yes, there is oppression, but only in the teacherís
desperate attempts to keep so much of collective energy from
Granted; not everything is rosy with
bilingual education as practiced in Arizona.
A severe shortage of qualified, experienced teachers has
undermined even the feeble attempts at providing a decent
bilingual education at the elementary level.
The racial bigotry of many a school administrator had
forced all kids with Spanish surnames into bilingual classes,
irrespective of oneís language ability and parental consent.
The curriculums and supplementary materials in Spanish
language are woefully inadequate, to provide the children with
sufficient knowledge. Yet,
arenít these caused by the same problems affecting even the
dominant language education, like low teacher salaries,
inadequate per-pupil-funding and the gross negligence by state
authorities to pay attention to quality in education?
Add to that; the bilingual education has received only
lip service so far from the governing bodies.
Will abolishing bilingual education solve
all these problems? Definitely
not. Neither should
we. We will disenfranchise a large number of hard-working,
tax-paying people. Then,
letís make it better for those who require and request it.
Letís make bilingual education a valuable
asset for the quickly expanding trans-border economy.
Many corporations and even the government bodies, in
Arizona and in the neighboring states, find themselves
hard-pressed to hire bilingual staff to coordinate business
deals with Latin America. More
than the language, a good business deal requires a person
capable of understanding cross-cultural differences.
The power of bilingual education lies right there: making
an individual appreciate and co-habit both cultures.
Bilingual education makes not only good
economic sense, but more so socially.
We blame the families for neglecting their adolescents
when they become social pariahs and cause havoc in the cities.
The dominant language education system, that breaks the
social umbilical chord by forcing the kids to forget the
parental language, that ďeducatesĒ soul-less, identity-less
adolescents and then abandons them to the streets, has nobody
else to blame when they revolt.
Save some exceptional cases, many students without solid
parental support find their careers end at menial jobs, if at
The Vice-principal of Terra Bella school is
an exception. A
farm workerís son, he grew up there in the village, studied in
the same school, and now proudly serves his own community.
During the lunch recess, a girl playing in the field came
running to him and chirped some in Spanish: it is not forbidden
outside the classroom. The
Vice-principal, though, had to abide by the rules all the time.
He answered the girl in English as gently as he could,
but when he turned, his face was writhing with immense pain.
Should we fall, in broad daylight, into the same trap that California fell at night?
If you would like to begin a discussion, please send me an email. Write to me
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