"Babel" in Schools
Life After Prop. 227
Issues in U.S. Language Policy
Consider the irony: despite its increasing diversity, the United States remains an underdeveloped country when it comes to language skills. Immigrants are importing other tongues at record rates. Yet the vast majority of native-born Americans remain stubbornly monolingual. Our ignorance of other languages and cultures handicaps us in dealing with the rest of the world. U.S. trade, diplomacy, and national security all suffer.<1>
Today our language policies address this problem primarily with efforts – none too successful – to teach "foreign" languages to Anglo-Americans.<2> Meanwhile, we seek to eradicate these same skills among our ethnic minorities, out of misplaced fears of diversity or haste to force their assimilation. Even transitional bilingual education programs serve to wean children off their native languages as rapidly as possible.
Why not try a different approach? Instead of focusing on immigrants' disabilities in English, why not encourage them to maintain their abilities in other tongues while they learn English? Why not exploit the valuable resources they are contributing? In short, why not promote English, plus other languages?
English Plus has emerged as the main policy alternative and rallying cry for those opposed to the English Only campaign. The case for English Plus boils down to a simple question: why throw away valuable knowledge? If there is any pedagogical reason to do so, it has yet to be discovered. Psycholinguists have long since debunked the myth that bilingualism confuses the brain. More likely, it enhances cognitive flexibility. Certainly, multiple language skills benefit individuals in numerous ways – occupational, cultural, psychological – and they could also benefit the country. But we need to seize this opportunity with conscious policy decisions.
What would an English Plus policy look like?
As a counterpoint to English Only, however, English Plus has been
less than an unqualified success, as Mary Carol Combs,
former director of the English Plus Information Clearinghouse,
explains in an analysis of its history in advocacy.
1. E.g., it has created major problems for U.S. security agencies. "Of the more than 500,000 American troops deployed to the Persian Gulf [during Operation Desert Storm], the Department of Defense was able to identify just 45 U.S. military personnel with any Iraqi language backgrounds, and only 5 of these were trained in intelligence operations"; Congressional finding of the Foreign Language Economic Enhancement Act, H.R. 5442, 102d Congress.
2. Enrollments in modern-language courses increased
from 23 percent of U.S. secondary students in 1982 to 38 percent in 1990 –
largely due to stiffer college entrance requirements. Nevertheless, according
to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, "only 3 percent
of American high school graduates, and only 5 percent of our college graduates,
reach a meaningful proficiency in a second language – and many of these students
come from bilingual homes"; ACTFL Public Awareness Newsletter,
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