San Diego Union-Tribune

Thursday, May 28, 1998

A Threat to Community and Communication

We all have a very important decision to make as we vote in the primary election on Tuesday, a decision that affects not only the lives of thousands of our children, but also the long-term viability of our work force and, perhaps, of our democratic society itself.

The Unz initiative to eliminate bilingual education in our schools is tragically shortsighted, mean-spirited, and divisive. Let me explain why.

As humans, language is our most important, most distinctive tool. It enables us to communicate with one another at a level and a complexity unknown in other species. It is the source of our civilization, our ability to pass culture and history from generation to generation. Language allows us to communicate with Thomas Jefferson, read Paul's letters to the Romans or enjoy the works of Pablo Neruda or Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.

Language transcends the boundaries of time and space -- and because of it we can communicate with one another around the world and through time. The Internet is impressive, but language itself is the real "World Wide Web." Language, the tool that allows us to share these thoughts now, is what the Unz amendment proposes to put at risk. How? By interrupting the normal, complex, wonderful development of linguistic ability to artificially force the learning of English in a way that will compromise the intellectual development of our children.

Research worldwide suggests that there is a steady process of mental development through childhood. Its depth and power depend largely on the development of neural linkages through language. It is more important to first develop strong, powerful minds in whatever language. Then a second language can effectively be added. Lose the developmental, neural foundation and any language, including English, will be compromised.

Proposition 227 would not only stifle the intellectual development of our children, it would also stifle their later ability to learn other languages.

Think of the irony: we intervene to stamp out a native language at a critical time in the intellectual development of youngsters, and then we tell them they should learn a foreign language five years later -- after we have succeeded in making it truly foreign.

One of the greatest sources of the excitement and promise of San Diego comes from its international character. Here we are on the threshold of Latin America and the rim of the Pacific.

Can there be any doubt that our economic and social futures lie in being multicultural? And yet Proposition 227 would rob us of that, by driving a wedge between us and our future.

Just as Propositions 187 and 209 drove business and trade (i.e., dollars and jobs) away from California to Texas and Arizona, so too would the Unz initiative send a signal of isolation and cultural insensitivity that will hurt our state and our commerce with the global community.

Every day, I see firsthand the wonderful results of natural linguistic development on our campus. Many of our students are not native English speakers.

It is a delight to walk across campus and hear Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog -- as well as English and other languages -- being spoken.

That tells me that our students have the intellectual foundation necessary to succeed and to make a greater contribution to our society -- which is why they came to San Diego State in the first place. Through their bilingualism, we will be better able to speak with and interact with the world.

It concerns me that we would ever say "sink or swim" to any child on an issue as fundamental as intellectual or linguistic development. That is not worthy of us or of the society we have built. But I am particularly concerned when we forget that our society, our economy and our future will sink or swim with these very same children.

I have studied Latin, German, and French. Since coming to San Diego I have devoted about 30 minutes a day (now for two years) to learn Spanish. The results (as anyone who has heard me speak in Spanish will attest) are pitiful. I do not doubt that our youngsters will be better students of languages than I, but to make their future success in school, and subsequently in life,contingent on 180 days of language instruction is unreasonable and unfair.

The word "communication" comes from a Latin word meaning to share. It has the same root from which our word "community" is derived. We are a community precisely because we can share (communicate) with one another. That does not mean that we all speak the same language, but that we share the human gift of language itself.

Proposition 227 would compromise the intellectual and linguistic development of our children. It would diminish their ability to share in the global community of thought, and it would consequently make California a less effective voice on the world stage.

For these reasons I will vote "no" on Proposition 227; I urge my fellow Californians to do the same.

A no vote is a vote for our children's future . . . and our own.

WEBER is president of San Diego State University.