A recent article by the Associated Press questions whether “English only” language instruction is really the best way to go.
The article claims that in a joint AP-Univision poll, Latinos lag behind others who graduate from school, due to their “language and cultural obstacles”.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you by repeating all of the figures and statistics from the article itself. You can read that article for yourself using the link at the bottom. I’ll just tell you that in a nutshell, the article suggests that “dual language” learning trumps “immersive English” learning, due to its popularity with Spanish-speaking parents. One parent even commented that she wanted dual language learning because she didn’t want her child to be “ashamed of her Hispanic heritage”, as if there was really something to be shameful about being born Latino. You’re born what you’re born. There’s no sense in being shameful, or proud, over something you have no control over.
It sounds to me that the parents who make such claims aren’t as worried about their kids as they are about themselves. To put it bluntly, little kids don’t give a damn about their “heritage”. It’s adults that are obsessed with it.
First of all, the title of the AP’s article (“Language a Barrier for Latinos in Schools”) is misleading. It’s not the English-only instruction that’s the problem… part of the real problem is the parents of the kids themselves. To hear the authors of the article talk, you would think that these kids’ schools were the only places that they ever needed to speak English.
Think about this for a moment; have you ever seen a young Latino child here in the U.S. that couldn’t speak at least some English? How many times have you seen one of these kids act as an interpreter for their parents? I can think of at least two occasions off the top of my head when I’ve seen this happen. The first case was in a Kmart store, where a little girl who couldn’t have been much older than 6 years old was translating her mother’s questions to a store employee. The second occasion was in a bank, where another young girl, who appeared to be around 11years old, was struggling to interpret what sounded like a complicated financial discussion to a sympathetic looking bank employee, while her confused looking, Spanish speaking parents stared at her almost pleadingly, as if all their hopes were on the shoulders of their young daughter.
I really felt bad for that poor kid.
The article presumes that the bulk of a child’s English learning takes place at school. The authors are wrong. The real learning happens outside the school.
It’s a well known fact that children adapt to their respective environments quicker, and are more curious and/or accepting of the ways of others who are not like them as well. One of the benefits of this is that they learn some things much quicker than they’re adult peers; languages being one of them. They have more an incentive to learn such things than an adult, since they may have friends who speak those languages (in this case, English) and would like to interact with them better, unlike adults, who have already developed their sense of cultural pride, heritage, and prejudices that stifles their willingness to learn anything outside of those core values.
I’m willing to bet Latino kids would be learning English pretty well, even without taking English lessons at school.
This brings me to my next point; why is it that only Latinos, or Spanish-speaking adults, seem to have problems learning English in America?
German speakers don’t have this problem. Nor do those who speak Italian, Greek, Hindi, Arabic or even the super tough Chinese and Japanese. I myself have many relatives who have emigrated from the Netherlands, and all of them speak English fluently, many without a trace of an accent.
How is it that these other non-English speakers can learn it in a couple of years in some cases, yet we hear of cases of Latinos who has lived in this country for decades and still cannot speak it?
Earlier on a whim, I grabbed a can of air freshener from the bathroom while writing this report… “Febreze Air Effects”, linen & sky scent. Good stuff; makes the apartment smell nice.
Here is part of the instructions printed on the back of the top half of the can:
INSTRUCTIONS: “Hold trigger down and spray the air in a sweeping motion throughout the entire room.”
Now here are the instructions on the bottom half of the can:
INSTRUCCIONES: “Aapretar el gatillo y rociar por todo el ambiente con movimientos amplios.”
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is part of the reason why Latinos have a hard time learning English… they are not immersed in it. Granted, our road signs are all in English, but that’s pretty much the extent of it. Many of the common, everyday products you see in stores have both English and Spanish instructions and/or descriptions on them. In my area in Florida, it’s not uncommon to see flyers or advertisements printed in Spanish hanging on walls or telephone poles.
Earlier, while I was channel surfing, I found a total of 6 Spanish-language stations, and I only have the standard digital receiver that picks up the local channels. I can only imagine how many Spanish language stations there are on cable television.
Not far from my place, there is even a grocery store called “Bravo” (formerly called “Freshco”) that caters specifically to their Latino customers. All of their signs are written in both English and Spanish, and the entire store staff is Latino. Most of the products sold there are Latino themed, and Latino music plays on the store’s radio.
Talk about immersion…
I believe that in some cities in some states, you don’t even need to know English to get your drivers license. The test can be taken in Spanish.
Of course, we also have the infamous (some would say infuriating) “press 1 for English” for many calling services as well.
Spanish is everywhere, so why should they be bothered to learn English, when we so conveniently cater to them in Spanish?
While we’re doing this all for “equality” or “sensitivity”, we’re really doing Spanish speakers more harm than good with this dual language society of ours.
I’m not suggesting that we remove the Spanish language television and radio programs. There’s no need to make the jobless rate go higher than it already is. However, we could begin by removing the “dual language” instructions on our everyday items. I imagine it would save the manufacturers a nice chunk of change as a side benefit as well.
But Spanish speakers could help themselves in smaller ways, like watching more English language programming. That’s how many other non-English speakers pick up words and phrases. Some would suggest children’s programming, which is less complicated. There’s actually a program that airs on Saturday afternoons called “What’s Up! Que Pasa” on the Fox station, where almost everything said is spoken in English, than quickly repeated in Spanish (or vice versa), usually by the show’s main lead, “Papa Rap”. In certain situations, words will pop on the screen, with its Spanish counterpart appearing on the other side. They also have their own website. Spanish language channels would do well to have programming like this.
There are also free language learning websites, such as “Livemocha.com”, designed for speakers of almost any language. I’ve gone through it, and the design is actually pretty impressive for a free site. Spanish speakers of any age learning English (or other languages) will learn a lot from this site, which encourages you to submit your exercises (many are fairly simple), which are then graded by other website members that speak that language fluently. They then give you comments and suggestions on your efforts, either by sending you written replies, or even sending you an in-site audio message. It is also possible to add them as “friends”, much the same way as in Facebook or Myspace, and send your exercises to them exclusively.
At any rate, the idea here is to immerse them as much as possible in English. If their environment isn’t working, then they’ll just have to make it work. They need to surround themselves with English. If that means having to break “Latino culture, heritage and pride”, then that’s what they’ll have to do.
Sure, they can get by without speaking English in the United States. But do they want to just get by, or do they want to succeed?
The choice is theirs.
Poll: Language a Barrier for Latinos in School: Hope Yen & Christine Armario, Associated Press, 08/05/2010
“What’s Up! Que Pasa” official website: Papa Rap.net
Livemocha.com: Free language learning site.