280. Bilingual Education

I’m confused about the issue of bilingual education. At first, I thought I’d avoid writing about it untIl I was able to think clearly about it, but I’m beginning to think that confusion about it is evidence of clear thinking. If I’m ever able to stand confidently on one side of the issue, I’ll write another article. Until then, I’ll share my confusion with you.
In high school, I read The Ugly American. One of the messages I got from the book was that when you go to another country, it’s a good idea to know the
language and culture of that country. That it’s chauvanistic to expect the people in that country to speak English and behave exactly the way people back home behaved. I resolved to try to learn other languages, so that I could communicate with a larger portion of the human race. And eventually, I did learn bits of other languages.
When children came to my class from other countries, I tried to learn and teach my class some key words and phrases. In Japanese, “Ah-so-bee-MAH- sho?” means “Will you play with me?” Children in my class sometimes learned to say that, and it made recess a little friendlier once in a while. If a Japanese child had ever responded in Japanese by suggesting a game, or explaining why she/he didn’t feel like playing, the non-Japanese children wouldn’t have completely understood, although head-shaking, vocal tone, and facial expressions can convey part of the message.
But what about the message I got from The Ugly American? Are we an exception – an unusual country that will truly lift a lamp beside a golden door, welcoming people from around the world, and encouraging people to bring their languages and cultures with them? Or to what degree are we one of those provincial places whose game rules you’ve got to know in order to get along?
I like the idea of the Statue of Liberty. I’d like to think the United States is a place where people from around the world can find a home. Eventually, I’d like the whole world to be that way. It’s a little embarrassing, but when I went to Disney World, I went on the “It’s a Small World” ride four times. And I’d like to go on it again.
But the United States is not yet a place where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, or what your traditions are. Knowledge of English – especially the ability to speak without a “foreign” accent – is still a distinct economic and social advantage. We can aspire to become more of a welcoming country. But meanwhile, to what degree are those Khmer, Portugese, or Russian bilingual classes making children’s adjustment easier, and to what degree are they postponing a necessary task that’s more easily accomplished early?
Though my questions about bilingual education may sound (to those of you who have already taken sides) as if I agree with you, I honestly don’t know where I stand on this issue.

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