All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1995

Bilingual by Choice

Language Training Shouldn't Be Determined by Bureaucrats

Mr. McCaffery resides in New Orleans and is considered a great guide to Mardi Gras.

In the summer of 1992, I was a guest lecturer in comparative law at a large private law school in Latin America. One morning before class, I read in a local newspaper that the newly appointed minister of education had decreed that Indian children (defined as children who spoke an Indian language at home), who had previously received all their public education in Spanish, would now be instructed in Indian languages through the sixth grade in order to preserve Indian culture and ease their transition to Spanish. Ominously, the article mentioned that bilingual and multicultural experts from the United States had been consulted in this matter; there was no mention if anybody had asked the Indians for their opinion. I decided to do so myself.

Shortly before, I had seen a report on television about a conference at which Latin American Indians had met to discuss their mutual problems. Interestingly, the conference was conducted in Spanish (with some Portuguese), the lingua franca among Indians from Mexico to Patagonia, whose native languages may be as mutually unintelligible as German is to Chinese. Even some Indian languages that are seen as being a single tongue (Quechua, for example) have dialects that vary as much as Latin-based Spanish and Latin-based French do from each other. In rural markets I have seen Indians, who are speaking an Indian language within their group, start speaking Spanish with another Indian from a different tribe.

I put the paper down and went to my class, where I tried an experiment with my students, the children of the nation’s elite. When I asked what they thought of bilingual education, I got some very enthusiastic answers. All of them thought that learning to read, write, and speak in English was very important. Few knew no English; most had at least a reading knowledge of English; two or three spoke it as well as I did (showing a great effort on the part of their parents). All of the students wanted their children to learn English. They realized that their children would need English to succeed in the world beyond Latin America.

When I mentioned to the students that I was talking about bilingualism of Spanish-speaking learning an Indian language, the students started to laugh. They figured that this was a strange form of gringo humor, like that of the American law professor who had come the year before to lecture on animal rights in a country that has starving children in the streets of some cities. However, when I insisted that there must be some benefit they could derive from knowing an Indian language, one young lady suggested that this might be useful since one could then have Indian maids who spoke no Spanish, rather than Spanish-speaking Indian maids who command higher wages. Their contempt for the idea could not have been more patent.

Later that evening, I spoke with our teenage Indian maid about this subject. Although I did not notice an accent in the girl’s Spanish, my wife assured me that the maid had an “Indian” accent. The young girl said that her family spoke an Indian language both at home and with their neighbors in her village far from the capital. But she had learned Spanish from radio, television, the movies, and of course, in school. She was now working for a while in the city to improve her Spanish, to see the world, and to save up money for a dowry to better her marriage prospects when she returned home. Her brother had been drafted (willingly) into the Army, where young Indian men who were deficient in Spanish were put into Spanish immersion classes. Those who already spoke Spanish improved their grammar and pronunciation. The Indian girl said that her parents were happy that she was perfecting her Spanish in the big city and that her brother was being schooled in Spanish in the Army. Indian parents wanted their children to get the best possible education, which meant speaking, reading, and writing good Spanish: exactly how the elite viewed English for their children.

Thus, both the rich parents of the ruling elite of the capital, who send their children to law school and make sure they learn English, and the poor Indian parents of a small village in a remote province, who want their children to master Spanish, have made rational choices about their sons’ and daughters’ language preparation. For government officials to override such decisions against the best interest of children and the wishes of the parents is an abuse. In Latin America and in the United States it is an increasing problem.

Governmental Meddling

Consider the bizarre experience I had recently. I received notice that my six-year-old son was being removed from his normal French classes, to be put in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes–without my permission–because my wife and I had truthfully told the school system that Spanish is the language we normally use at home. There was no suggestion that his English was in any way deficient.

How this came about is a story of how mindless governmental meddling extends today even to the learning of language, which used to be guided by the normal laws of economics, common sense, and parental choice. As a young boy I grew up in the inner city of one of the great northern urban areas of the United States. The immigrant flotsam and jetsam of Eastern Europe, speaking dozens of languages, ebbed and flowed into that city after World War II. The Catholic Church across the street had all but one Sunday service in Croatian. (The last time I visited, all but one service was in English, showing the natural evolution of language choice.) My family attended the English-language Catholic Church several blocks away, which had been founded a century before by Irish immigrants (my father’s people) and later inherited by German and Polish immigrants (my mother’s grandparents). Although my mother spoke Polish and German at home, she attended school totally in English without any ill effect. I attended grade school with children who spoke German, Polish, Croatian, Hungarian, Romanian, Czech, and a dozen other languages or dialects at home. These boys and girls all achieved native ability in English without any special government programs to teach them the national language, now practically the world’s language.

A friend of mine, now a prominent surgeon, grew up living with his parents and both pairs of grandparents. His mother and her family spoke Lithuanian; his father and his family spoke Hungarian; the two sides of the family communicated in German. All five children knew these languages, yet spoke English as their primary tongue as a natural consequence of living in the United States. Nobody had to convince the kids to learn English; it was self-evident. No government program was needed to help them learn English. Common sense and self-interest did the job.

Several years ago I read through a book of short biographies of Americans who had won the Nobel Prize, looking for any common linguistic pattern. The only conclusion I reached was that speaking Yiddish as a child seems to be a good indicator for winning a Nobel Prize. Can it be seriously argued that Yiddish-speaking students would have won more Nobel Prizes had they not been put in English immersion but instead had spent years in Yiddish classes to ease their “transition” to English?

The great historic lesson from our past–that immigrant parents prefer, for good reason, to have their children educated in English immersion in school while preserving their native language at home or at church or synagogue–is ignored by the politicized public education apparatchik. Immigrant parents today face increasing coercion as they stubbornly try to avoid bilingual or multicultural schemes. These parents understand that their children’s future lies with ability in English, not Bengali or Vietnamese. The multicultural bureaucracy demands that immigrant children not evade their instructional clutches since there can be no funding for the “problem” of bilingualism if there are no children suffering from lack of native-language instruction. Perversely, the funding for bilingual education seems to come off the top of the education budget, not the bottom, reducing the funds going into real education.

Recently I met a couple who had moved to Louisiana from another state. They told me that they had been required by their previous school district to execute affidavits that they spoke English at home. Parents who admitted that they spoke a foreign language at home could not avoid being hassled and pressured by the multicultural programmers. Father and Mother evidently do not know best–the educational establishment does. The parents most harmed are those with the least education and at the lowest economic rung since parents who are professionals are better able to fend off the bureaucrats.

Significantly, the federal government does not practice the sort of bilingualism it preaches. The Department of Defense and the State Department employ “total immersion” to train their people in foreign languages, just the way immigrant children used to learn English.

There is nothing wrong with teaching children other languages. On the contrary, it is an excellent idea if done properly, by the parents, or at least with active parental support. My own children speak English, Spanish, and French (in approximately that order). However, this is a result of a conscious and reasoned decision by my wife (a native speaker of Spanish) and me, given the particular circumstances of our family and the unique resources available in New Orleans. No bureaucrat, no matter how well intentioned (most are—l am one myself), could possibly weigh these factors as well as we, the children’s parents, can.

Our children attend a French-language school (grades K through eighth) in New Orleans established by the French government, in cooperation with the state of Louisiana and the Orleans Parish School Board. They are taught by teachers from France, using the same textbooks used in France. Except for the children of French citizens, entry to the school is on a first-come, first-serve basis, with a line forming several days before registration. Thus, I spent a day waiting (and a night sleeping) in line to register my child in French Immersion Kindergarten six years ago. Since siblings of students in the program are automatically admitted, all of us in the line were there for the first time.

My fellow parents in line were a mixed lot—racially, ethnically, linguistically, and economically. The first in line was a poorly dressed black woman, seemingly without much formal education, who had been in line several days. She said that she had given up several days’ pay (obviously a great sacrifice for her) to be sure that her child got into the program since it was her daughter’s only chance to get a quality education (her child is one of the best students in her grade, American or French). Many of the other parents in line were immigrants or foreign exchange students who spoke languages other than French or English at home: German, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, and Vietnamese, to mention a few. For them, like my wife and me, French would be a third language for their children, a responsibility all seemed to take quite seriously. There were doctors, laborers, lawyers, waitresses, civil servants, active duty military, and truck drivers in line that night.

The proportion of French surnames was probably not out of proportion to a random cross-section of the population in the area. Nobody seemed driven by ancestral genes to have their children study French, contrary to the tenet of the new government-imposed multiculturalism that ancestry alone determines linguistic ability and preference.

These people had made personal evaluations of their children’s and their families’ unique environment, ability, and resources in such an endeavor. For example, it is understood by the non-French-speaking parents that there will be a cost for private French tutors for their children. I spend about $200 monthly for such tutors, a cost that will surely increase as my children continue French at a more advanced level. No bureaucrat could possibly know the parents’ resolve and resources in such matters, or gauge their resolve half as well as the first-come, first-serve system does in a crude but effective way. Because their parents are willing to bear the costs, the school’s students are the children with the best opportunity to succeed in its French immersion program.

The official bilingual, multicultural movement is no respecter of parent’s wishes or children’s best interests. Throughout the nation, but especially in California, children with Hispanic surnames whose families may have spoken English for generations are being herded into bilingual Spanish programs, supposedly to help them adjust to learning English. Just as logically (or illogically), children with Irish surnames, such as mine, should be incarcerated in Gaelic immersion to help them better adapt to learning English, Spanish, and French.

Except in the rare case of children who are literally wards of the state, the linguistic training of children should be the matter of familial and not governmental responsibility and choice. Parents quite naturally want their children to do well in life and wish them to master the language of the society in which they live, English in the case of the United States. In any event parents all over the world wish their children to learn English, the modern lingua franca of mankind. I have noticed that French families that are temporarily in New Orleans strive to have their children master English in the short time that they have in the United States.

To rephrase Clemenceau, language training of children is too serious a thing to be left to bureaucrats. The family knows best.