California educators continue trying to improve the instruction of students whose language isn’t English. A state education law voters passed 14 years ago limits school officials’ options. Activists who also favored English as the national language of the United States backed that ballot measure.
The default policy in California schools immerses students in English without building on what they’ve learned in their native languages.
At the same time, a growing body of research underscores the benefits of speaking two or more languages early in life.
A talk last week called “Bilingualism in Los Angeles and Orange County” at Cal State Fullerton proved to be a place to drill down on the issue.
The presentation closed the university’s 21st annual linguistics symposium, with topics that ranged from the endangered status of Shiwilu - a language in the Peruvian Amazon - to the particular way native Arabic speakers bend English pronunciation.
Fredric Field of Cal State Northridge began his academic talk by explaining that the national languages of Germany and France aren’t pure; They’re a jumble of other languages and dialects. He told the audience that a Facebook posting he came across underlined a similar issue for American English.
“There was a little thing I read today about English speakers wanting all of the immigrants to go back home, and so all immigrant languages are going to be abolished in the United States," he said. "And there’s a Native American standing next to them, saying ‘I’ll help you pack’.”
Southern California’s centuries-old history of multilingualism, he said, has included some painful chapters.
“Some of my students are kind of amazed at what was going on in Los Angeles in L.A. Unified School District before the civil rights movement when children were fined a penny a word for speaking Spanish on the playground. They were assigned Spanish detention. This is L.A., this is not Texas or Arizona,” Field said.
Field reviewed stats from the 2000 U.S. Census to demonstrate how different Southern California is from the rest of the United States. At the time, over 80 percent of the national population spoke only English. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles County, 45 percent spoke only English.
The rest spoke mostly Spanish, Field told the audience. Other languages with more than 100,000 L.A. County speakers included Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and Armenian. Orange County wasn't much different. About 54 percent of its people spoke only English. That means just under half spoke something else. Again, mostly Spanish, Field said.
“Vietnamese was the third language and on down to number twenty, Russian, he said. "Do realize that there were almost 4,000 Russian speakers in Orange County. Isn’t that kind of interesting. Lots of Germans, Romanians, Gujarati speakers – almost 6,000,” he said. Gujarati is the Indian mother tongue of Mahatma Gandhi.
Why study local multilingualism? Field believes that just as the impending loss of a language in a far away jungle or savannah raises concerns, the death of students’ heritage languages in this country’s classrooms should be prevented. He calls California’s English immersion approach "subtractive education."
“The realities of a multilingual, multicultural California demonstrate that if the educational system purports to prepare its children for success – its children for success in the future – then the system will look into a number of things, it will examine the consequences of its subtractive educational policies and seriously look at language maintenance of a child’s native language for the good of the nation and the good of the child,” Field said.
Applauding Field’s talk from the front row was Cal State Fullerton undergrad Josue Arceo. His parents are Mexican immigrants and he grew up in Santa Ana and Mission Viejo.
“My mom at first used to have that idea that we should speak English primarily," said Arceo. "But as the years went by, she did away with that and she saw that, regardless of what her ideas [were], that we’re going to learn both, because of all our relatives that speak Spanish to us,” Arceo said.
He remembers taking bilingual education classes before the state ban. Now waivers and special programs in charter schools, for instance, are the only way to teach multiple languages to young children, said USC researcher Gisele Ragusa.
“If we do it well and shelter their English language development so they really do develop cognitive skills in English and strong vocabulary and strong literacy skills, having really good English language models from their teachers and peers," said Ragusa, "they will learn strong English.”
Ragusa said California’s 14 year-old English immersion policy isn’t working in many California schools despite improved training for teachers of English learners.
“I think what people are doing now is something called "English-plus" – so they’re embracing the fact that "English only" is here to stay, but thinking about what other ways can we enrich the experience of children; have earlier access to more than one language,” Ragusa said.
So that the experience in the classroom, she said, can better reflect the multi-lingual richness of life beyond school.