Loco, Completamente Loco

The many failures of "bilingual education"

Rosa Torres had been dreading this call. Her daughter Angelica's first-grade teacher wanted to come over and talk. The teacher didn't say what she wanted to discuss, but Rosa knew. There had been a program on television, and the unfamiliar English words had rung in her head like a fire alarm: learning disorder. Surely that was what little Angelica had.

Every afternoon when she came home from school, Rosa asked the same question: What did you do in school today? And every day Angelica gave the same answer: Nothing. She seemed bored, listless, maybe even--though Rosa didn't see how it was possible for a 6-year-old--depressed.

Rosa wondered how a child developed a learning disorder. Certainly there had been no sign of it a couple of years before, when Angelica started preschool at the YMCA. Rosa had been so worried, sending her little girl off without a word of English to spend a day among the American children. But everything had worked out just fine. Angelica rolled through there like a snowball, picking up more and more English every day. Soon she spoke it much better than Rosa, and after a while she spoke it much better than Spanish.

Of course, that wasn't surprising. After all, Angelica was an American, born just a few miles down the freeway from their home in Redwood City, a scruffy working-class town 30 miles south of San Francisco. It was her parents Rosa and Carlos who were the immigrants. They left Cuzco, the ancient Inca city in central Peru, with plans to study in America, learn English, get college degrees, live the good life.

Like most immigrants, they found out it wouldn't be all so easy as that--American landlords and shopkeepers wanted to be paid in cash, not dreams. Classes gave way to jobs, the kind you get when you can't speak English. Carlos was baking pizzas for a little more than minimum wage, Rosa babysitting for a little less. She spent her days with the children massaging the little bit of English she'd picked up in a couple of community college classes; the 3- and 4-year-olds were patient professors, never complaining about her fractured sentences, content to point at the big white thing in the kitchen and repeat the word refrigerator a hundred times if that was what it took for Rosa to get it. For adult company, she watched television while they napped, puzzling over Oprah's vocabulary as much as her ethos, smiling in secret delight whenever she got one of Regis and Kathie Lee's jokes.

The life, if not exactly the one she'd dreamed, wasn't a bad one. No one was sick, no one went to bed hungry. There was a roof over their heads. Little by little, they were adjusting to America. But now there was this trouble with Angelica. Apprehensively, Rosa waited, tried to steel herself to hearing the words learning disorder not from a disembodied voice on TV but from the teacher's lips; not affixed to some unfortunate, not-quite-real children from another part of the planet, but to her own daughter, right here, right now.

The teacher turned out to be a Japanese lady (well, American, really; Rosa had to keep reminding herself how it worked here) with a manner that was at once kindly and intense. "I think you need to go talk to the principal at the school about Angelica," she said after they settled in.

"What about her?" Rosa said, stomach churning, knowing the answer, dreading it.

"I think you need to get her into an English-speaking classroom," the teacher replied. "She understands English perfectly. And she doesn't like taking lessons in Spanish. I think it's really holding her back. It's damaging her."

"What do you mean, Spanish?" Rosa asked, silently cursing Oprah and Kathie Lee, who had obviously failed her, because this teacher wasn't making any sense.

"Spanish, that's what we're teaching her in," the teacher said. "Didn't anyone tell you? She's in a bilingual education program. Just go tell the principal she speaks English, and you want her out."

When the teacher left, Rosa still found it hard to believe the whole conversation hadn't been some horrendous translation glitch. The teacher had explained that Angelica, because she was Hispanic, had been swept into a class full of immigrant children from Mexico and El Salvador who spoke little or no English. OK, Rosa could understand how that might have happened. But why were the children being taught Spanish instead of English? How were they ever going to learn English if the school didn't teach it to them?

Nonetheless, a conversation with Angelica confirmed it. All day long, her teacher spoke Spanish. The books were in Spanish. Even the posters on the classroom wall were in Spanish. Only for a few minutes in the afternoon did the language switch to English. "And then we just learn some baby words like bread or paper," Angelica complained. Summoning the most malevolent curse in her 6-year-old vocabulary, she cried: "It's dumb!" Finally Rosa understood her daughter's moody shuffling of the past few months.

The solution, unfortunately, was not as simple as the teacher promised. When Rosa went in to see the school administrators a few days later, her request to transfer Angelica into an English-speaking class met with withering disapproval. "That's not in your daughter's best interests," one of the school officials said. They flashed incomprehensible charts around, used a lot of language Rosa didn't understand, but the message came through loud and clear: We know better, we're the teachers.

Rosa was doubtful. The idea that kids would learn English by being taught in Spanish all day seemed, well, kind of nuts--especially for Angelica, whose best language was English. But...but...who was she to question them? An immigrant babysitter lady who spent her days in pathetic conversations with 4-year-olds about who was smarter, Big Bird or the Cookie Monster? When Rosa left the office, her daughter was still enrolled in the Spanish class.

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