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 decision?

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 analytical thinking.

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 exploding.

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 all.

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?

-September 2000

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