Saturday, February 26, 2011

Making English the Official Language will not Assure Universal English Proficiency

The Tribune carries a story this morning regarding a bill proposed by Representative Drazkowski proposing to make English the "official language" of the State of Minnesota. (click here). Allegedly, part of this initiative would be to prohibit government from communicating to new to country non-English speakers in their native language. Perhaps I am being unfair, but one is inclined to ask, what are we supposed to do -- use sign language. Before I write further, I'd like to make a couple of things crystal clear:
  • English is already the official language of the United States. You cannot function effectively in the United States without being fluent in English. Everybody knows that, especially immigrants. Failure to speak English at a high level is an employment impediment. It makes it difficult to navigate all aspects of our daily lives.
  • English has become the unofficial language of the world in many respects. It is the language of trade and commerce. It is spoken as the number one second language of preference across the world. English as a primary language is not under threat. In fact, only one thing could possibly threaten the dominance of English as a primary world language, and that would be nativist attempts to flaunt that primacy in ways that cause other countries to respond in kind.
  • Immigrants to the United States, whether their native language is Spanish, Somali, Chinese, or otherwise, are united in their desire to learn English, and especially to see that their children become fluent in English. The implicit suggestion that we have to force immigrants to learn English is an invention of people who seek to exploit anti-immigrant sentiment. The most common criticism that I hear from Somali parents is that they want our school district to do more to assure that Somali children learn English as fast as possible.
English-proficiency-now advocates are asking school districts to accomplish an objective never before demanded of public or private schools in American history. We have undertaken this task, but passing a law is not going to assist us in that effort. My German ancestors came to the United States to escape wars of religion, wars of nationalism, wars among the petty German states, and periodic waves of economic depression. We were Catholics, Protestants and Jews, mostly. When we arrived in the United States, most Germans strived to maintain their fluency in their native language and many maintained German as their first language for a generation or more. Wikipedia explains:
The Germans worked hard to maintain and cultivate their language, especially through newspapers and classes in elementary and high schools. There are German Americans in many cities, such as Milwaukee brought their strong support of education, establishing German-language schools and teacher training seminaries (Töchter-Institut) to prepare students and teachers in German language training. By the late 19th century, the Germania Publishing Company was established in Milwaukee, a publisher of books, magazines, and newspapers in German
This desire to take advantage of the freedom and prosperity of the new world while preserving the cultural richness of the old has characterized all immigrants to the United States. In some respects, preservation of the native language strengthened the ability of Germans to organize to make sure that their children received appropriate education.
By the late 19th century Germania published over 800 regular publications. The most prestigious daily newspapers such as the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung and the Illinois Staats-Zeitung in Chicago promoted middle-class values and encouraged German ethnic loyalty among their readership. The Germans were proud of their language, supported many German-language public and private schools, and conducted their church services in German. They published at least two-thirds of all foreign language newspapers in the U.S. The papers were owned and operated in the U.S., with no control from Germany. As Wittke emphasizes it was "essentially an American press published in a foreign tongue."
For generations, there was a degree of animosity between protestant Germans and Catholic Germans as well as animosity towards Germans from other immigrants. Nativists argued that the Catholic Germans and other Catholic immigrants would be loyal to the Pope instead of their new country. They alleged that the new immigrants didn't understand English values and that they would ultimately undermine the political and constitutional values that made this country great. It took "two or three generations, German Americans adopted mainstream American customs—some of which they heavily influenced—and switched their language to English. As one scholar concludes, 'The overwhelming evidence … indicates that the German-American school was a bilingual one much (perhaps a whole generation or more) earlier than 1917, and that the majority of the pupils may have been English-dominant bilinguals from the early 1880s on'."

Several school districts in Minnesota have experienced a rapid rise in enrollment of non-English speakers. In St. Cloud, we now have approximately 1100 students who come to us with severely limited English or no English at all. Housing policy of various neighboring communities have tended to concentrate non English speaking children and their families in our school district. By way of comparison, the most recent MDE reports so that Sartell has 22 limited English Proficiency students (LEP), or 0.77 percent as compared to our 12 percent. We have a few districts in Minnesota with more than 1/5 of their students with limited English Proficiency, and we have a host of school districts who have a tiny percentage -- under one or two percent -- of limited English proficiency. At times we are stunned, really, when we hear people from school districts with virtually no non-English speaking students claim that, well, it shouldn't cost any more to educate a child from a refugee camp in Somalia than the son or daughter of a lawyer, banker, or college teacher. You can't arrive at English proficiency for all by passing a law: it takes effective, aggressive, dedicated teaching. Nor will we achieve that objective by pretending that it can be done for free.

Its somewhat stunning to hear Americans who struggle to learn how to say "where is the bathroom" in a foreign language announce by legislative fiat that it should be a cost free project to teach English to non-English speakers in a few short years.

Those of us who have been handed the responsibility to assure that all Americans speak English effectively take that responsibility seriously. We know that it is absolutely critical to the future of American democracy and economic prosperity that immigrants learn English as rapidly as possible, and that they learn about American democratic ideals, so that they can become effective citizens. But just about the worst way to make that happen is to pass silly laws that prevent us from communicating to immigrants in their native language while stripping school districts of the resources needed to do the job. Putting us in that straightjacket makes it more difficult to make sure that kids are in school, that their parents understand disciplinary expectations, that our teachers can teach effectively and assure mastery of the English language.

Representative Drazkowski, if you are really interested in making sure that every American learns English effectively, why not sit down with leaders of school districts and learn what we are doing to make that happen. Why not ask what you can do to help. We would welcome a visit to St. Cloud to engage in a constructive dialog on how we could accomplish an objective we all share: assuring English proficiency of every American resident.

There are things the legislature can do to lend us a hand. The State has demanded that all non-English speaking students who come to our school district must become fluent in English at a college ready level. Representative Drazkowski, come visit St. Cloud and find out what we are doing to try to make that happen. The City of Mazeppa is 97.69 percent white. Of the 1071 students in the Zumbrota school district, 7 (or six tenths of a percent) are reported by that District as coming to the District with limited English proficiency. If you really want to lend us a hand in a mission that we should all care about, the best thing that you could do is to try to understand that it takes more resources to take a young person who speaks no English and educate them to proficiency in the time allowed by Minnesota law. If that is your objective, then you will fight to make sure that school districts like ours aren't stripped of funding we need to do that job effectively.

Passing a law to make English the official language won't do anything to make sure that we all speak English. There is one thing, and one thing only that will accomplish that objective, and that is to provide public schools who are charged with the task of teaching English have the resources to get the job done. How about lending us a hand!


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