We can’t share cultures if we can’t communicate

Elton Wong

Two years ago, the state of California voted to ban bilingual education in its public schools. Previous to this vote, primary and secondary schools in California taught over a million Spanish-speaking students separately from English-speaking ones. Starting with the ban two years ago, bilingual education was banned and Spanish-speaking students were forced to learn in classrooms where only English was spoken. This policy held even if the students had no previous experience with the language. Included in the new policy were all subjects, from math to science to social studies. Last week, the test scores of California students were released. The results show that Spanish-speaking students are improving in reading and other subjects at “often striking rates,” according to an article in the most recent Sunday New York Times. Students are learning English and using it faster and better than most anyone had predicted. As a result, test scores in other subjects are up. What does this mean for bilingual education? To first clarify the subject, it should be noted that “bilingual education” is a misnomer, because students under this system are only required to know only one language. This is counter to the definition of “bilingual.” Under so-called bilingual education, the language that a student happens to speak is used as the basis for segregating them. Instead of using the term “bilingual education,” I’m going to use the more accurate term “lingual segregation.” I hope “lingual” is a word. Also, when I speak of “English-only” classrooms, I’m speaking of history, science, math, reading and writing classrooms, and the like. I support diversity in language education (students learning a second language,) but I argue that the core classes should be taught in English, so everyone can understand them. In addition, I believe that solid English skills should be taught to everyone in U.S. schools. Even though the new test results prove the educational superiority of English-only classrooms, I predict that many people will still support lingual segregation. Thus, we must deal with a couple of questions. English-only education is unquestionably more effective in educating Spanish-speakers. But is it truly a policy of cultural supremacy? Is it really xenophobic and prejudiced to force native Spanish-speaking students to learn English? Many supporters of lingual segregation use these arguments. However, the answer to these questions is no. Absolutely not. The only reason to support English-only classrooms is because the students benefit. The purpose of education is to prepare people for success in the world, as well as to broaden their horizons. Language education is an integral part of education. Any school in Iowa, for example, that failed to hold its students to proper standards in spelling, writing, reading, and so forth could lose accreditation. Students without solid English skills can’t go to college, and are severely limited in employment opportunities. This is why it is vital that all students in the US be well-trained in English, regardless of their native language. Without this fluency, a person’s opportunities are reduced a thousandfold. Allowing lingual segregation is the same as enforcing racial segregation, not just in schools, but later on in our society. Make no mistake, the lack of a common language leads to division in all levels of society. Division often leads to repression. Learning English in the United States helps one overcome division and is empowering. Does banning lingual segregation repress culture? It does not. For instance, when I was a student in Ames Middle School, I spent my time in math class learning geometry and algebra along with the rest of my classmates. These systems of math were invented by the Greeks and Middle Easterners a long time ago. Although my ancestors came from China, Ames Middle School did not teach me math the Chinese way. In fact, as far as I can remember, the last time I saw an abacus was in kindergarten. I believe we made rollerskates out of them. The point is that language is not only a cultural invention, it is a pragmatic one too. A common language makes communication possible. In this way, it is like a mathematical system. Language is a part of culture, but it is not culture in and of itself. In the case of the United States, having a common language is necessary to allow people to fully partake in democracy, educational opportunities, employment, the free exchange of ideas, and many other important things. In any case, teaching classes in English does not send a message that English is somehow a “better” or more legitimate language. Teaching in English simply acknowledges that English has long been the common language in the United States. Therefore, it is one of the skills students need to succeed. There is nothing prejudiced or unfair about this. It just happened to work out that way. Equipping students with tools to succeed is never a bad thing. Every kid in the country should be at least bilingual by the time they graduate from high school, because diversity of language and knowledge of cultures is good. There are many languages, many cultures to choose from. Therefore, it is all the more important that we do share a common language, so that we can express what we know. It is obvious that we will not be able to share diversity, experience or opportunity if we cannot communicate freely with each other.