Forum

Attack on bilingual education lacks cultural awareness

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Language is active. It is dynamic. Its function and form evolve with the changing needs and uses of communication in society. It allows for a sense of unity; it expresses culture. Language highlights difference and variety, and when properly respected, can be used to emphasize cultural uniqueness and appreciation. However, when its purpose is misunderstood, language can be used to segregate and subvert entire cultures.

Such cultural derision was recently committed by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and social blunder-extraordinaire. In a March 31 article titled “Abolish bilingual education, Gingrich urges,” CNN.com reported that Gingrich equated bilingual education with “the language of living in a ghetto.” According to the ever socially conscious political orator, English should not only be the official language of the United States, but immigrants should be forced to abandon their native language (and, subsequently, their native culture) and be educated only in English — whether or not they understand it.

First of all, what does “the language of living in a ghetto” even mean? This statement is nothing but derogatory. Is he talking about “ghetto” as an informal manner of speech or as an actual low-income housing region? Either way, it’s insulting. If anything, cultural awareness — that respecting one’s native language encourages — which is promoted by recent immigrants continuing to communicate in a language other than English, should be encouraged in public education rather than wholly squandered.

And what about diversity? Gingrich told the National Federation of Republican Women that “The American people believe English should be the official language of the government.” This follows his 1995 comment that bilingualism (perhaps not even just in terms of education) poses “long-term dangers to the fabric of our nation” and is “very dangerous.”

Yes, the concept of people learning in multiple languages, rather than one, so that they can truly succeed is terrifying. How can we remain homogeneous and judgmental if we have to sit next to other students who are also learning in Spanish? I mean, if the kid who takes math in Spanish and history in English can now compete at my level (you know, since he can actually learn math in a language he understands), then what if he does better than me? According to Gingrich, that would destroy the entire fabric of our country’s culture!

Gingrich went on in his speech to mock the federal requirement that voting ballots be printed in multiple languages in areas that are largely multilingual. This, he insisted, is because “Citizenship requires passing a test on American history in English. If that’s true, then we do not have to create ballots in any language except English.” Because, you know, that test always means that recent immigrants totally understand the language of the U.S. Why, Señor Gingrich, is it a bad thing to retain one’s heritage and language? Why is bilingualism — understanding two languages, two cultures, two new ways of interpreting the world — such a bad thing?

The article noted the response to Gingrich by Peter Zamora, cochair of the Hispanic Education Coalition. According to Zamora, the Coalition, which backs bilingual education, has research that shows that “bilingual education is the best method of teaching English to non-English speakers.”

Moreover, no one can claim that immigrants are avoiding learning English at all. Zamora noted, “Everyone wants to learn English because it’s what you need to thrive in this country.” No one is hiding in their supposedly desolate, unwanted “ghettos” and devising ways to take down the English language, Gingrich. They’re not conspiring to make sure every written word is written in Spanish. Your teleprompter won’t suddenly be en español. But if it is, don’t worry: The Spanish language only bites a little bit before running back to its ghetto, where it (of course) knows it belongs.

Besides the blatant racism being propagated by Señor Gringo — I’m sorry, I mean Gingrich — the argument against bilingualism, particularly in schools, is potentially very damaging to American students. There is a ridiculous amount of evidence out there that shows that bilingualism, particularly in regards to two different forms of languages (Romantic versus Germanic, for example), teaches individuals, particularly children, to think in new and different ways. This means new thoughts, new ideas, and new ways to advance the world.

I don’t want to ignore the counterargument to my assertion that bilingualism and bilingual education are, well, necessary. There are some logistically valid arguments against bilingual education, such as the problem of semi-lingualism and a lack of qualified teachers. Semi-lingualism relates to the idea of an individual being near-fluent but not completely comfortable in a new language, and also feeling subsequently alienated from his or her native culture after becoming assimilated to the new one. I can also understand citing a need for a national language for a unified system of economic, political, and social communication, and maybe — just maybe — to encourage American patriotism. However, even if such arguments are acceptable, Newt Gringo neither cites them nor proposes a solid argument. Rather than arguing in terms of these logistical difficulties of bilingual education, Gingrich’s argument is tainted with white supremacist ideals and an unwillingness to encourage Americans to be culturally heterogeneous. He comes off as closed-minded and oppressive rather than well-reasoned or well-intentioned (or, you know, kind).

Instead of encouraging this system of oppressive hegemony and citing the use of the English language to back it, we as Americans need to be more culturally aware. Instead of aiming to distance ourselves from the wide array of immigrant groups living and working in our nation, we need to realize that America is nothing without cultural diversity. The hegemony of a closed-off, culturally muted ruling class will do nothing but stunt our growth as a cultural world power. The English language itself is the result of the mixing of several other languages. Rather than using it to segregate the American majority culture from other groups identified by speaking other languages, we should use language to become culturally aware and accepting, to understand other groups’ customs, and to be united — not divided — as a nation.