USA Today

Tuesday, October 20, 1998

California's English Immersion Will Not Work

Forty-six years ago this fall, a young boy, born of Mexican immigrant parents, entered De Zavala Elementary School in Crystal City, Texas.

Although the school was named for a Mexican who sided with Texas during its rebellion against Mexico -- and although the town was about 90% Mexican-American and De Zavala contained not a single Anglo student -- that young boy was not allowed to speak the only language he had ever known, the language of his parents and grandparents.

I know: I was that boy.

Not only was I not allowed to speak my own tongue, my teacher was not permitted to speak to me in Spanish, even if she had known how.

And so it was that when my father dropped me off at the door of Mrs. Tinsley's room and introduced me, in his limited English, as Juan Ramón, the teacher responded with, "Hello, Juan" and pointed to a desk in the back of the large room that already contained about 40 other students.

My reaction was to protest that my name was not Juan, that I had always been Juan Ramón, and that's what I wanted to continue being. But, of course, I couldn't because Mrs. Tinsley wouldn't have understood me.

The rest of the year wasn't any easier. Having gotten the message that there was something wrong with my language -- which was as much a part of me as the brown skin that covered my body -- unable to communicate with my teacher, and forbidden to speak to my new school friends in anything but the few English words I'd been able to learn, I found that life was simpler if I simply remained quiet.

But I had one advantage that most of my classmates didn't: The year before, my mother had paid Doña Herminia Sifuentes to enroll me in her escuelita (little school), where I learned my basics: how to count, add and subtract. I learned how to read. More important, I found that learning was fun, that school was a friendly place and that being a student was a very good thing.

During those months, the only things I was concerned about were those things that normal kindergarten-age children care about -- learning and discovering, playing and pleasing my teacher.

It wasn't until the following year, when I entered public school, that I was forced to deal, in my simple and vulnerable mind, with the difficult questions: Why was my language suddenly bad? If Spanish was bad, yet had been treated with such high regard in Doña Herminia's school, did that make my parents and grandparents -- and Doña Herminia -- who could speak no other language, bad also?

On a more immediate level, every time I started to open my mouth, I had to prepare myself for the hysterical ridicule -- from my teacher and my more advanced classmates -- of my mispronunciations or other misuse of the English language.

Today, whenever I talk about this, I know there will come the accusation that this is nothing but liberal do-gooder psychobabble, that schools are about learning and not about nurturing a child's emotional well-being. And that may be true.

But I know that I can also point to the practical benefit of my bilingual education. I can see where Doña Herminia's escuelita made a difference when I did begin to learn English. Because we already knew the basics of how language worked, it wasn't as difficult for me and the other alumni of the escuelita. Once we realized, for instance, that the "s" in "See Spot run" was just like the "s" in sombrero, the rest became easier.

It was still a struggle, but it was manageable. And today, as children settle into the school year, I can't help thinking of all the little Juans and Juanitas out in California, which last year decided to move away from bilingual education. I wonder how they are handling their first term of school without the special help bilingual education would have offered them. Some remain in bilingual education, but that is only a transitional phase.

The majority of children, instead of arriving at a school where they will be greeted in a familiar language, are being forced into a year of intensified English classes -- a year in which they will learn a new language and gain little else other than an early understanding that their language, their culture and their families are suddenly inferior.

After one year, most students will be placed in traditional classes. We are told that those still in need of special help are being exempted from this rule, but given the current anti-immigrant mania in California, can we really expect that to last?

California may think it has come up with a new solution, but there is nothing new about it. Its system is the same system Texas had in place when I entered the schools. Texas called its first year "pre-primer"; California calls it intensified English training. It didn't work in Texas (more than half of the students who started school with me that year never even made it into high school), and it won't work in California.

I'm glad to have lived until recently in a state where politicians, from our Republican governor to most politicians of both parties, didn't seem to need to fan the flames of divisiveness by going after bilingual education.

I am not so naive as to deny that some bilingual programs have been abused or misused. But I like Texas Gov. George W. Bush's simple solution: Let's look at it, and if it really doesn't work, let's fix it.

Juan R. Palomo, a free-lance writer and media relations representative for the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, D.C., is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.