April 15, 2007

Gingrich as Grinch

A couple of weeks ago Benjamin Zimmer wrote about Newt Gringrich's very negative opinion of bilingual education (see Gingrich's "Ghetto" Talk). That happened to be the day after I gave an exam (in my class Ling. 115, `Language in a Multicultural World', on language situations in countries around the world), and I read the following passage in an exam essay written by one of my students, Trevor Sponseller, in response to a question about political motives and consequences of language-related educational policies:

"When education was being developed...in Papua New Guinea, British colonizers felt that they were educating the native people to hold lower positions in society....Sir Hubert Murray spearheaded this movement, declaring English as the only language of instruction. This way, the indigenous people would not be able to learn too much, and they would learn enough English to be able to obey the British colonizers. Education, in this case, was the means by which Murray `put the indigenous people in their place'."

Papua New Guinea, needless to say, had no bilingual education program.

Trevor and his research-group teammates had reported earlier in the term that, frustrated by their inability to understand their teachers and schoolbooks, many indigenous children in New Guinea simply dropped out of school. This is hardly a unique situation: the same thing has happened in many countries to countless numbers of children, sometimes (but not always) as a result of deliberate governmental policy. The Newt Gingriches of this world, or at least of the U.S., will of course ask why the children failed to learn English, often adding that their own grandparents didn't have any trouble with the language when they immigrated to the U.S. as children and were thrown into English-only classrooms.

Good question, but it raises other questions. First, how do they know that their grandparents had no difficulty learning English? (I suspect that they're often just wrong about this, but I admit that I have no evidence to support this guess.) Second, are their grandparents a truly representative sample of the immigrant population? Articulate people like Newt Gingrich who claim that all children should do just fine in a monolingual school setting, regardless of their previous exposure or lack of exposure to the school's language of instruction, tend to be highly-educated, high-achieving, financially comfortable types. If their grandparents were similarly prepared, culturally, to do well in school, it isn't surprising if they succeeded in overcoming the language barrier. But any country that designs its school system to serve only the high-achievers is unlikely to end up with a well-educated population.

Anti-bilingual-education folks might point out, correctly, that there's a huge difference between English in New Guinea, where there are almost a thousand indigenous languages and not many native speakers of English, and English in the U.S., where most people already speak it; it ought to be easier, therefore, for immigrant children in the U.S. to learn English. And so it is, for some children -- especially those who live and learn in a neighborhood with lots of English-speaking children, and whose parents speak English reasonably well. But not all children have these linguistic advantages. In Life with Two Languages (Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 168ff.), François Grosjean describes the experiences of Dieudonné, a young Haitian boy who immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was five, at which time he spoke only Haitian Creole. In the U.S. his family settled in a Haitian neighborhood, most of his friends were Haitian, and English was not used in his home. By the time he went to school, he knew some English, but he was far from fluent. His first school had no bilingual education program; the sole language of instruction was English. Dieudonné was lost. After three months he had fallen behind, his English had not improved, and other children in his school teased him about his bad English. He had `become withdrawn and very unsure of himself'. At first his mother opposed her parish priest's recommendation that she enroll Dieudonné in a city school that did have a bilingual education program, insisting that her children `had to learn English and would not do so if they were taught in Creole'. But eventually she changed her mind, and Dieudonné changed schools. His new teacher was bilingual in Haitian Creole and English, the other children spoke Creole to him, and his educational life improved dramatically. At first he was taught in Creole, but the use of English was gradually increased until, two years later, he was able to transfer back into a mainstream English-only program. By this time he was fluent in English and no longer sad and withdrawn: he had become a successful bilingual, and a successful student.

Dieudonné's educational experience highlights the difference between a stressful introduction to a new language in school and a stress-free introduction. Of course not every child will react the same way -- in particular, some will thrive in a mainstream program even if they start out with as little English as Dieudonné. But condemning the many Dieudonnés in our school system to a life of educational disadvantage, with the resulting attitudinal and socioeconomic problems, is cruel. Newt Gingrich and the many Americans who share his views about the worthlessness of bilingual education surely do not understand what their depressingly successful efforts to dismantle bilingual education are doing to these children: they are in effect stealing the children's education, because you can't learn reading or math or history or any other subjects when you don't understand your teacher.

Luckily, there are people who do understand the consequences of Gingrich's Grinch approach to the problems of non-English-speaking schoolchildren, and who are working diligently and with some success to remedy the situation: see, for instance, this description of the goals and activities of the "English Plus" movement.

Posted by Sally Thomason at April 15, 2007 12:18 PM