Immigrants and the Language Issue

By Richard Estrada
Volume 6, Number 4 (Summer 1996)
Issue theme: "The battle for official English"

Like it or not, Sen. Bob Dole is the linguistic if not the political reincarnation of George Bush No habla bold vision.

However Dole has been anything but tongue-tied when it comes to articulating his position on an issue of vital importance to American nationhood the necessary primacy of the English language.

"Lacking the centuries-old bonds of other nations," he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece in December, "we have used not only our history and values but our language, English, to make the American experiment work."

Because the language issue is of widespread concern to the American people, President Clinton should take note. Polls routinely find enormous voter support for making English the nation's official language. A survey conducted last year by Luntz Research Companies on behalf of the Washington-based lobbying organization U.S. English found no less than 86 percent support for such a law.

Broadsides were fired anew recently after the release last week of voluntary national standards for standard English. Crafted by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association - organizations whose efforts to establish English standards were initally encouraged and funded by the federal government - the new "standards" instantly earned the scorn of everyone from conservative Republican education expert Diane Ravitch to Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Clinton's education secretary, Richard W. Riley.

Cohen succinctly complained that the standards don't "tell parents or students what is important to learn and ... teachers what is important to teach and by when." Here is one of the "guidelines" "Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative and critical members of a variety of literacy communities." The others weren't much better.

Meanwhile, author Rosalie Pedalino Porter [has published] an epilogue to her exposť about another controversy on the language front. Originally published in 1990, Forked Tongue The Politics of Bilingual Education condemned a bilingual-education establishment that has been more concerned about promoting liberal ideology and bilingual teaching jobs than about helping immigrant students achieve English fluency. [See an ad for the new edition of her book on page 267.]

In other words, bilingual education has been driven by bureaucratic needs rather than legitimate educational needs. According to the American Legislative Council, an estimated $12 billion was spent on special language programs in 1994. These programs primarily emphasized the maintenance of the source culture of the student while downplaying American culture.

But the Milton Marks Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy recently termed bilingual education in California "divisive, wasteful and unproductive." Against this backdrop, the following findings of a 1994 GAO report help explain why things are not destined to improve under the current system

∙ Immigrant students tend to speak little if any English upon arrival in the United States.

Language and Migration

As ethnic Germans move from the former Soviet Union to claim citizenship, Germany is enforcing the requirement that there be a satis-factory grasp of the German language. Beginning in July, 1996, ethnic Germans in the former Soviet Union who wish to migrate to Germany may receive a summons to take a German language test at the nearest German diplomatic mission. A senior official for ethnic German matters at the federal administrative office in Cologne, Christoph Verenkotte, says these tests are designed to make sure would-be immigrants meet legal requirements before leaving their countries of origin.

- From the Internet The Voice of America∙ Among newcomer stu-dents placed in high school classes, some have never been schooled in their homelands and are altogether illiterate.

∙ Immigrant students are often poor and transient, with parents who are often unable or unwilling to show meaningful interest in their education.

Two important conclusions should be drawn While educators should focus on developing the potential of all students, lawmakers should not deceive themselves about the consequences of constantly expanding the number of limited-English-proficiency students through other policies.

No one is harmed more by a chronic expansion of students with limited proficiency in English than non-English-speaking students who are already here. Around 2 million are currently enrolled in special language programs nationwide.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which features the highest percentage of limited English proficiency students in California, the four year dropout rate is almost 44 percent.

Dole is succeeding in raising the language issue partly because he is no loose Buchanan. But while the Senate majority leader deserves credit for that, he has been less than forthright in failing to note with equal emphasis that the language issue is driven by the nation's system of mass immigration.

With 1.1 million newcomers entering the country each year, it should be obvious that a policy of mass immigration is creating constituencies demanding specially tailored programs, including bilingual education and affirmative action.

In sum, Dole's failure to link immigration to language hardly means he is wrong in seeking to enshrine the primacy of English in law. And Buchanan's boom-box approach to speechmaking does not mean he is wrong in his general notion of limiting immigration. □