In a few weeks, we Californians will have the opportunity to undo an educational and societal mistake caused by an ineffective 20-year-old law, Proposition 227, by reinstating power to local school districts and parents to choose the most effective English-language education program for their children.
On May 21, 1998, two weeks before Proposition 227 was passed by the electorate, restricting instructional methods to teach English, the Santa Barbara School Board unanimously voted to eliminate bilingual education in local schools. As quoted in a New York Times article at the time, one school board member justified the decision by asserting that white parents “don’t want their kids to go to a school where half the children speak Spanish. People want their children to have a happy, open learning experience.”
Despite decades of research confirming the many cognitive, academic, and social benefits related to bilingualism, not to mention the effectiveness of bilingual instructional methods in supporting faster and better English-language development, voters were pitched “English for the children” mottos during a politically tense anti-immigrant moment. It is time to disentangle political concerns about bilingual education from fears of immigration and immigrants.
Voting yes on Proposition 58 offers Californians the opportunity to restore bilingual and dual-immersion language programs and to foster a bilingual brain and a bicultural viewpoint in every child.
According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, less than 5 percent of California public schools today offer bilingual or multilingual programs. Given the fact that students in other countries are being educated multilingually, California students are being done a disservice. To place our nation’s monolingualism in perspective, in most European countries, students begin studying their first foreign language between the ages of 6 and 9. In California, high school students are required to take just one course in either the arts or a foreign language. Furthermore, California is home to 1.4 million English-language learners, the majority of them, nearly 80 percent, speak Spanish at home.
In spite of the immense potential to develop competent multilingual speakers, the curricular focus on English comes at the expense of maintaining and developing home or familial languages. In fact, contrary to what many Americans believe, Latinas/Latinos are now shifting to English more rapidly than any other immigrant group at any time in history — often within a single generation, as children lose their Spanish soon after entering the school system. Without educational support for their home languages, immigrant students lose both the many cognitive and economic benefits of bilingualism and the ability to work at their academic level. For years, our linguistics outreach program for youth, which we offer in area schools and community organizations, as well as our undergraduate courses have painfully proven how current generations are dealing with the loss of their heritage language. One student admitted, “I hate it that I cannot communicate directly with my Spanish-speaking grandmother. I have to rely on my mother to translate the language and that relationship for me.”
And another student shared how she struggles to relearn Spanish: “I am just now starting to speak Spanish after years of being too embarrassed and too focused on my English.”
Nearly two decades after Proposition 227 became the law of the land, educators, parents, and students themselves can see the effects of English-only schooling on Asian, European, and especially Latina/Latino immigrant students. As the success of special bilingual schools like Santa Barbara’s Adelante Charter School demonstrates, students of all backgrounds are happiest and learn most effectively when the languages they bring to the classroom are validated and strengthened, not marginalized.
Just as significant, the lack of support for bilingual and multilingual educational programs means a lost opportunity for native English-speakers to learn a second language in an increasingly diverse and multilingual state of California. In our experience at UCSB, we have found that the majority of honors students in our classes, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, are often bilingual or trilingual speakers.
Today, the United States is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Not to prepare future generations for a bilingual future is irresponsible.
On November 8, by voting yes on Proposition 58, Californians will return the power to local schools to use state-of-the-art teaching methods to produce bilingual speakers and prepare our children to excel in the multilingual global workforce.
D. Inés Casillas is a board member of Adelante Charter School and associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCSB. Mary Bucholtz directs the Center for California Languages and Cultures and is a UCSB professor of Linguistics. Jin Sook Lee is a UCSB professor of Education. All three codirect School Kids Investigating Language in Life and Society (SKILLS), an academic outreach program for youth in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.