Let's Keep Teaching English to Children in Our California Public Schools

Bilingualism vs. "Bilingual Education"

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When I’m driving, my car radio is invariably tuned to KOIT, the leading “easy listening” station in the San Francisco Bay area. My tastes are humdrum and unsophisticated, so the songs merely provide some pleasant background music, occasionally punctuated by commercial ads, mostly annoying but occasionally amusing.

One of the better ones began running only recently, an AT&T spot touting its new family plan with unlimited data on multiple lines. The spot opens with a brother and sister discussing all the wonderful things they’re able to do with so much monthly data, including talking, texting, using social media, and playing games. Except for the smartphone technology being discussed and the traces of “Valley Speak” style and intonation, the two teenagers almost sound like they might have been plucked straight from a Leave It to Beaver episode set in the idealized suburbia of the hallowed 1950s.

But about half-way through, unexpected references began catching my attention. The boy mentions that the unlimited data plan also allows his mom to share comments on her favorite novelas and his dad to share pictures of his favorite soccer players. Hmm, I suddenly thought. And then a bit later, the boy teases his sister and she responds “Mama! Carlos me esta molestando“—“Mom! Carlos is bothering me”—causing the irritated mother to reply with a bit of scolding Spanish. I suddenly realized that the blond or freckled Southern California teenagers I’d been imagining in my mind’s eye were probably somewhat duskier in hue.

Every year AT&T ranks as one of America’s top advertisers, with an annual media budget in the billions, and the focus group research that goes into its marketing campaigns must surely render even the best-funded presidential effort amateurish and unscripted by comparison. So if AT&T believes that an appropriate phone-plan pitch to California’s millions of Latino families should involve teenagers speaking perfect accent-free English then switching to flawless Spanish, while their parents prefer the latter, that’s very likely correct.

Although the commercial did catch me a bit by surprise, it merely reinforced something I’ve occasionally noticed among the numerous Latino workers I regularly encounter in my daily life in the Palo Alto area. Certainly a large majority of the older ones have the weak or heavily-accented English that marks them as immigrants, perhaps even relatively recent arrivals. However, among young adults, say those in their twenties or so, it’s not uncommon to encounter speech patterns that would be absolutely indistinguishable from those of Mayflower descendants raised in lily-white suburbs—but which then seamlessly switch to perfect Spanish as soon as the need might arise.

I’m not sure exact numbers exist, but it wouldn’t surprise me if California today contains one of the largest concentrations of totally bilingual members of the younger generation found anywhere in the world. And ironically enough, an important factor behind that widespread rise of California bilingualism was probably our successful Prop. 227 campaign over eighteen years ago, which replaced so-called “bilingual education” in California’s public schools with intensive sheltered English immersion.

The reason for this apparent paradox is that “bilingual education” is largely a misnomer, and in practice the system invariably amounted to Spanish-almost-only instruction.

Most Latino immigrant children grow up with Spanish being the language of their home. Their families usually watch Spanish TV, listen to Spanish radio, and most of the people in their neighborhood speak Spanish in their daily lives. So if these young children, knowing Spanish as their sole language, eagerly enter kindergarten or the first grade only to encounter classrooms in which nearly all the instruction is once again in Spanish, is it really so surprising that they might remain monolingual Spanish-speakers for a considerable number of years?

Our larger society is overwhelmingly English-oriented, and with the most popular movies and television shows being in English, all of those children did eventually learn our predominant national language, even if the pre-Prop. 227 schools hadn’t gradually introduced considerable English by the fifth or sixth grade. But for many students, losing those earliest five or six years of English-language instruction saddled them with a greatly reduced English vocabulary and a strong, permanent accent. They certainly learned English, but sometimes spent the rest of their lives having trouble reading, writing, or even speaking it properly.

Latino immigrant families in California tend to be working-class or working-poor, and if their children leave the local public schools being less than proficient in English, they are obviously doubly-disadvantaged, and would have a very difficult time getting a good job or pursuing higher education. But achieving the total fluency and literacy produced by immediate English immersion opened many doors, and in 2014—nearly two decades after Prop. 209 outlawed Affirmative Action in California higher education—newspaper headlines announced that the number of Latinos had surpassed the number of whites admitted to the prestigious University of California system.

The whole notion that schools should teach English to children who already know Spanish hardly constitutes a revolutionary pedagogical notion. After all, schools usually concentrate on teaching children what they don’t already know rather what they do, but with regard to language, this only became the case after the June 1998 passage of Prop. 227 and its full implementation in September of that year. A million or more immigrant schoolchildren were suddenly exposed to six or seven hours a day of English in their classrooms, quickly absorbing that new language “like little sponges,” while still often spending the remainder of their childhood in an almost entirely Spanish-speaking neighborhood environment. Given such a truly “bilingual” upbringing, it’s hardly surprising that over the last decade or two so many of them have become fully bilingual young adults.

Almost twenty years ago, during the early stages of the Prop. 227 campaign I published a long op-ed in The Los Angeles Times similarly entitled “Bilingualism vs. Bilingual Education” and I think the facts have completely born out my analysis and predictions at that time:

Bilingualism vs. Bilingual Education
Ron Unz, The Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1997


Offhand, the current situation might seem a reasonably satisfactory state of affairs, especially since Prop. 227 never actually outlawed bilingual education. Immigrant parents desiring a non-English education for their children could still obtain that option by signing an annual written waiver, but since the vast majority preferred English, those other programs largely vanished.

The only group never reconciled to the disappearance of bilingual education was the small, but zealous clique of bilingual ed activists, many of them the same individuals who had opposed our initiative back in 1998, still just as rigidly committed to their doctrinaire beliefs but now 18 years older. The entire topic has been dead and forgotten by nearly everyone else for so many years that these activists recently took advantages of that public vacuum—and the total political amnesia produced by term-limits turnover—to successfully lobby the empty-headed California Legislature on the wonders of this innovative new educational technique called “bilingual education,” now hindered by the old-fashioned restrictions of Prop. 227. As a result, this November’s ballot contains Prop. 58, which largely repeals the provisions of Prop. 227 and reestablishes the old basis for Spanish-almost-only “bilingual” programs.

Amusingly enough, Sen. Ricardo Lara, sponsor of Prop. 58, let slip some telling remarks at the press conference announcing his plan to repeal “English for the Children.” He explained that one of the biggest problems with the current system is that immigrant parents are usually quite reluctant to sign the written waivers placing their children in bilingual programs, especially when they are informed that they can choose English classes instead. Hence the need to remove the waiver requirement, allowing those children to receive the supposed benefits of Spanish-almost-only “bilingual” programs, whether their parents really want it or not. An official in the California State Department of Education provided the same explanation to an educational journalist.

Indeed, I suspect these statements hint at one of the main groups quietly pushing for the change. Over the years, Spanish-almost-only “dual immersion” programs have become increasingly popular among California’s affluent, well-educated Anglo families, but the structure of those programs also requires participation of large numbers of Spanish-speaking children, and perhaps the supply of voluntary ones has gradually been exhausted. Therefore, eliminating the waiver requirement will allow school districts to ensure that those very politically-engaged upper-middle-class Anglo families are provided a sufficient number of working-class Latino immigrant children to act as unpaid Spanish-language classroom tutors for their own. Even during the original Prop. 227 campaign I regularly encountered vehement protests by numerous dual-immersion Anglo parents, but I’m not sure that I ever came across a single Latino immigrant family opposed to our “English” campaign.

This November’s ballot is an especially full one, overflowing with seventeen initiatives, many of them being the sort of tax and regulatory measures that attract enormous advertising budgets. Estimates are that a total of some $450 million will be spent on the various competing Yes and No campaigns, with the radio and television stations already saturated with their ads. Given that bilingual education no longer exists and many Californians have almost forgotten that it ever did, it’s not clear how much attention our particular issue will attract.

Furthermore, the bilingual ed activists rather deceptively entitled their measure the “English Language Education” initiative, even though it actually repeals the requirement for English language education. Given the enormous popularity of teaching English in the schools, such attractive packaging may sway a considerable number of voters, easily befuddled by such a long and complex ballot. So it’s difficult to predict the outcome.

But regardless of any possible changes in the law, English has now become so deeply rooted in California’s public schools that I find it very difficult to believe that any widespread change would occur. For most of a full generation, Latino children have gone to school and easily learned English in just a few months, and if the schools stop following that sensible policy, parents will surely become quite disgruntled and quickly make their feelings known to the chagrined politicians who created such an unnecessary problem.

Let us consider an example, not entirely dissimilar. Many Italians live in New Jersey, and I doubt that most of them pay close attention to all the nonsense proposed by the foolish politicians in Trenton. But if one school year they discovered that their local public schools no longer taught in English, but that the language of instruction had switched to Italian, I doubt they would be happy about this or that such a silly policy would long continue.

(Reprinted from The Unz Review by permission of author or representative)

• Tags: Full, Ron Unz