In 1969 the South Bay District in Imperial Beach became one of the first in the country to implement non-English instruction.
This is a test.
You are standing in Room 36 at Encanto Elementary School where Diane Moss-Curry is the teacher. Encanto is the San Diego neighborhood just east of Lemon Grove; it’s run-down and barren but it has a certain rural charm, and it's one of the most integrated sections of the city. About half the kids in this classroom are Mexican, but several are Anglos, and near the window sits a pensive, watchful black boy. Eighteen of the classmates started school speaking mostly Spanish while thirteen could speak English. Now, this is America where public education is the law of the land so here’s the first question: how do you educate all of them equally?
Teresa Krohn: "Children learn a second language best when they’re immersed.”
Inside Moss-Curry’s classroom, where you can look out the window and watch the American flag fluttering, only Spanish is spoken. Moss-Curry is an Anglo but she speaks fluent Spanish and she moves smoothly through a routine. First the little children stand with their hands over their hearts and she leads them to pledge allegiance to America — in Spanish. For a few minutes they discuss the day’s weather using not a word of English.
Carolina Flores: "My people suffer in traditional ‘immersion’ classrooms."
Moss-Curry calls upon shy slender Lilia to begin the session of compartir (show and tell). Lilia shows off the blouse she is wearing and whispers that its colors are "dorado, bianco, y cafe. ” Next Moss-Curry calls on a blond little boy who seems proud of the attention. He holds up a brightly colored book and looks down at the circle of his peers seated cross-legged in front of him.
"Mi libro," he declares. "Preguntas?"
''Como se llama?’’ (What's the name of it?) pipes up the black six-year-old.
"Se llama Star Wars," the towhead answers.
He flips through the pages identifying the characters ("Se llama Luke Sky walker. Se llama La Princesa Lea") and the teacher interrupts when he turns to a large science fiction creature.
"Es un animal grande," she comments. "Es un elefante?”
"Si,” he nods.
Now answer these questions. If you were one of the Mexican kids who spoke only Spanish, would you want to start school in a classroom like this? What are the English-speaking children doing here? How well will both groups of children learn? Will it polarize the country eventually? Is it un-American? If you need a clue, this is bilingual education in action.
Last year, the county grand jury tried to learn how much public money went into bilingual programs in San Diego County. Though the jurors couldn’t get exact figures, what they did find indicates the total runs over four million dollars a year. The grand jury tried to ascertain exactly how many local classrooms like the one in Encanto are offering bilingual instruction, but only concluded that at least twenty different school districts have some kind of program. This past year, however, has tested the programs severely. The grand jury’s final report last May called for severe cutbacks of all the bilingual offerings. The Union, the Tribune, and KFMB-TV have all issued negative editorials in recent months, and dozens of angry letters from parents have been printed. Resentment has grown among qualified teachers all over the county who have felt their jobs threatened by other teachers with flashy bilingual credentials. So these days it's easy to be prejudiced.or at the very least suspicious, about bilingual education. But before I tell you a little about where all the laws and money and programs came from, let's linger for a little while at Encanto Elementary, where Lilia and Clara and Gabriel and Ricardo and Marco Michel get out of school every day at 3:05.
The Michel children live just one and a half long blocks from the school, in the 6100 block of Broadway. Their parents, Antonio and Aurora, and four older brothers and sisters moved here three years ago from Tijuana. Only the father spoke English then; he had already been driving across the border daily to work at Foodmaker’s Balboa Avenue plant. Now all of the family members have some command of English; even the mother is attending adult school. The three oldest children plunged into classes given entirely in English, but Mr. and Mrs. Michel chose to enroll the younger kids in Encanto’s bilingual program. (First-grader Lilia gets only a half hour a day of English instruction, second-grader Clara gets one hour a day, and fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders Gabriel, Ricardo, and Marco study in Spanish in the morning and in English in the afternoon.) The arguments against current bilingual education were beginning to overwhelm me, so I wanted to talk to some enthusiastic parents. Mr. Michel was working, but Mrs. Michel received me graciously in the fading light of one recent day.
The family living room, lined with dark wood paneling, was even dimmer; the yellow fabric curtains were drawn against the sunset. But the scent of furniture polish and other cleaning fluids sweetened the air. There wasn’t a speck of lint on the freshly vacuumed brown carpet, and someone had placed a fully-blossomed, cut rose on the carved wooden coffee table. Mrs. Michel, an intelligent, attractive woman who wears her dark hair long down her back, sat on the edge of the crushed green velour sofa, where her fingers played nervously on the immaculate white doily on its arm. She was embarrassed about her lack of English, so she called to her seventeen-year-old daughter (also named Aurora) to help interpret for her.
Aurora appeared, still clutching the copy of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible she had been reading. She talked a little about the dreadful shock she encountered when she started school three years ago — not to be able to express herself at all; not to understand anything but a few random words. “Oh, my God!” she murmurs in recollection. “It was so hard. I wanted to go back to Tijuana.” It took her eight months before she began to feel comfortable, but now she speaks English admirably. Without hesitating, she translated her mother’s explanation of why she chose classes taught in Spanish for her younger children.
“She thinks it’s a great opportunity not to forget Spanish and to learn Spanish reading and writing, and to learn English little by little.” Mrs. Michel said she is satisfied by their progress in English. I asked if they wouldn’t learn it faster if they were immersed in English language classes the way their older sister was. The mother replied that she’s sure they would, but she fears that their studies of other subjects might suffer in the meantime. She sat erect and composed and she added the most important point: she and her husband think it would be sad and wrong for their children to forget how to speak Spanish, to lose touch with their origins in Mexico.
She knows it can happen, and she told me about another family now living in San Diego, one which came from the home town in Jalisco that Antonio and Aurora left behind eighteen years ago. Mrs. Michel says now everyone in that other family speaks only English. They watch American television, the parents only speak English to the young ones, and the young ones already have begun to forget their past. They do it because they think it makes them seem more intelligente, Mrs. Michel explained. It was clear from the look on her face that she disagrees. "People just think about the present,” the daughter translated. “They want their kids to learn English really quick. But they don’t know that they’re going to lose their Spanish.”
Eighteen years ago, if the Michels had moved directly to San Diego instead of stopping in Tijuana, they would have had no choice over their children’s education. In the early 1960s, the children of immigrants did what the children of immigrants have done throughout most of the history of American public education: they enrolled in classes with American kids and they floundered until they somehow picked up English on their own. But then came one influx of immigrants in the mid-Sixties that finally brought that long-standing tradition under review.
What happened then was that Cuban exiles began pouring into Miami and overwhelmed the school system there. In those early days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, congressmen were giving a lot of thought to special educational programs: programs for handicapped children, for “socially disadvantaged” children, and so on, and in l%7 the first federal money began flowing into Miami and elsewhere in the Southwest to aid children disadvantaged by their inability to speak English. At first, all of these programs were optional and most embodied the philosophy that now goes under ESL (English as a second language). In ESL programs, participating children spent most of their days in classes taught in English but were pulled out for special sessions to bolster their developing English. One local bilingual educator recalls that those early ESL classes “were doing one hell of a job teaching the kids English, but the kids were falling behind in other areas like math and reading and social studies.”
So another current of thought began coursing through the educational establishment — that the children had a right to good education even while they were learning English. Thus schools should teach them in their native language until they gain the English fluency. In 1969 the South Bay Union Elementary School District in Imperial Beach became one of the first in the country to implement non-English instruction. Adel Nadeau, who helps administer the San Diego city schools bilingual program today, started teaching there at that time. Nadeau explains that up to then people thought of the non-English speakers as being somehow deficient — underprivileged minorities who needed something extra to make them “normal,” part of the mainstream. “But the bilingual educationalists began saying, ‘No, these kids are not deprived, necessarily. They just happen to speak another language, one that’s just as ‘good’ as English.” Proponents of this newer philosophy argued for a shift in goals — away from teaching kids English so that they could finally study in and speak only English. Children must speak English in order to function in American society, the bilingualists agreed, but they pressed for schools to also teach those children some subjects in the native languages indefinitely.
While these educational philosophies bloomed, legal events paralleled them. The most dramatic was the 1974 Supreme Court decision which sprang from the Chinese neighborhoods of San Francisco, where a suit was filed in the name of 1000 Chinese children. The court finally ruled that schools had to do something to help language minorities, but it didn't spell out exactly what. Pete Chacon, the state assemblyman from Coronado, wrote the most significant California law addressing that, the 1976 bilingual-bicultural act. It says that all California school districts have to identify all their non-English speakers, and must teach any concentrations of them in their native language while the students are learning English. That’s why today the San Diego City Schools District isn't just teaching Spanish-speaking kids in Spanish. The district has discovered fifty-eight different languages spoken in homes citywide, and now district teachers are using fifteen to twenty different languages, everything from Cambodian to Arabic, in math, reading, and history classes. The programs work in all kinds of ways; Adel Nadeau gave me a twenty-nine-page, virtually impenetrable pamphlet describing just the models for the city’s elementary schools. And remember, at least twenty different school districts in the county each have their own separate programs. As the varieties of bilingual instruction have grown, however, so has a backlash which says that current bilingual programs are ineffective, cost too much, cripple children's futures, and may be fundamentally un-American.
The report on bilingual education issued last May by the grand jury talks about that backlash. In fact, the sensational sixty-eight-page document reads more like a delineation of the backlash than a response to it. Its prime spokesman. Louise Dyer, even admits that she and her committee didn't tackle the subject objectively and work their wav through to fresh conclusions. Dyer is a genial woman who wears thick glasses and briskly bobbed gray hair; she lives in a meticulously tended house on the hill that rises over Rosecrans Street in Point Loma. She served on the San Diego City Schools board of education from 1965 to 1973, the years when bilingual education was just getting started. “It’s been a continuing interest of mine for a long time,” she admits. Dyer recalls greeting the early ESL programs (where instruction was in English with special English-language tutoring) enthusiastically; she thought it was a good idea to help non-English speaking kids. She says only when the trend began shifting toward non-English instruction and then to “bilingual maintenance” (where children never shift into only English classes) and further to “biculturalism” (where foreign as well as American culture is taught) did events seriously begin to disturb her. So when Dyer was impaneled as a member of the 1978-79 grand jury (which studies areas like education and county government in addition to investigating crime and returning indictments) she figured the subject of bilingual education was ripe for some critical evaluation.
The report’s conclusion was critical indeed. “Mastering English and learning to function in the American Way of Life are the obligations of every immigrant,” Dyer wrote. The grand jury declared that it isn’t the school’s responsibility to preserve and teach the cultural heritage and customs of any single ethnic group, and it recommended that ESL instruction should be provided only until students could function in English. Supporting those assertions, the report offers no finely crafted latticework of arguments; instead it just sort of tosses in the major logs fueling the critics’ side of the controversy.
One of the heftiest is the fact that after all these years, bilingual education proponents still haven’t come up with much in the way of academic results. If the original goal was to boost the performance of non-English-speaking students, the proof that that’s working simply hasn’t materialized. When Dyer’s committee surveyed local school districts and asked forevaluations, it mainly netted anecdotes about individual students and only spotty statistics. So the committee looked at statewide test scores released last fall, which indicated that Mexican-Amcrican students, the group which has received the biggest and broadest bilingual programs, still are achieving “at a lower level than other ethnic groups” and suffer from the highest drop-out rate. The committee further cites the even more damning study published by the American Institute for Research in March of 1978, which indicates that the vast majority of Spanish-speaking children in bilingual programs are not transferring out of those programs and into English-only classrooms. Furthermore, when this study compared Spanish-speaking kids in the bilingual programs to other Spanish-speakers not in special classes, the researchers found that the first were performing at about the same level in mathematics and worse in English.
The grand jury report also assailed the outright contradictions among current bilingual education laws and included one experience of the San Ysidro School District. The jurors told how San Ysidro last December needed five bilingual teachers, and in accordance with the law, spent $3000 to mail out a notification to 1798 teachers on a statewide list. Since the law requires that all teachers on the list be notified, that put the district in the absurd position of having to write 150 teachers who spoke twelve languages other than Spanish in addition to the 1648 Spanish speakers. Of them all. the district finally interviewed only one candidate — who was considered not suitable for the job. “Even more tragic from a waste of time and money standpoint is the fact that doubtless a large majority of the districts in the entire state are spending time and money to contact these same 1798 teachers,” the report said.
Along with other minor points, the grand jury committee threw in one other piece of tinder, the fear that bilingual education may eventually lead to national polarization. Here the jurors mainly gave the floor to Senator Sam Hayakawa. one of the most impassioned opponents of non-English instruction. The report includes a statement of Hayakawa’s made before the senate. “I believe we all grew up with the concept of the American melting pot; that is, the merging of a multitude of foreign cultures into one. In this world of national strife, it is a unique concept." he said. “It had a fundamental impact on this nation's greatness. In the light of these new educational developments, I ask myself, what are we trying to do? Where do we want to go? Demographic research tells us that ten or twenty years from now in some of our states [including California], there will be a majority of individuals with Spanish backgrounds. It seems to me that we are preparing the ground for permanently and officially bilingual states. From here to separatist movements a la Quebec would. Be the final step,” Hayakawa declared.
The grand jury report outraged San Diego’s bilingual educators. They called a press conference and labeled it “politically motivated” and “filled with racism.” They railed that the jurors twisted the truth by implying that bilingual programs don’t aim to teach children English. Today, Adel Nadeau, the San Diego City Schools administrator, almost quivers* visibly when the mention of the report comes up. To her, the conflicting laws and regulations don’t justify dumping the whole bilingual education package; they merely cry out for improvement. Nadeau concedes that test results so far have not proved the success of the experiment, but she argues that the political controversies which have plagued bilingual ed — the specters of separatism and the resentment of children today getting something which our forefathers did without — have made it impossible for the experiment to be carried out fairly. Real assessment of the programs’ performance has been haphazard, she contends, and the entire motley groups of programs labeled “bilingual” have been lumped together and judged as a bastard whole. Of the worries about political separatism, Nadeau's tone is withering. “True bilingual programs foster pluralism, understanding of each other’s needs.”
I talked with Louise Dyer in her spotless Point Loma living room, a cozy nest of gold and orange and yellow made even homier by a fireplace, a cuckoo clock, knickknacks. She devotes much of her time to teaching quilting in adult school, and she seems genuinely hurt by the charges of racism, but she strives to be understanding; she tries to use plenty of non-Mexican-American examples so as not to step on sensitive toes, she told me. She doesn’t project confusion, however. She has a clear viewpoint to which she firmly adheres.
All the excuses about poorly worded laws and confusing test results are beside her main point, which she wishes had come out even more strongly in the grand jury report, she says. That is, she thinks it’s bad in principle to teach children in a language other than English. A little is okay, she says, “but it should be limited to just enough where they can get along in classes in English. . . . You see, the real debate is over whether you take a bilingual or an ESL approach.” Dyer says the reason why children end up not speaking, English even though the educators say their goal is to teach them English is because “well-intentioned or not, the bilingual programs become maintenance programs.” She asserts, “When you spoonfeed people, when you put them in a class and say. 'We want you to be real good in your language before you learn English,’ there’s no real motivation ever to move out.” When a child goes to school and hears his teacher speaking Spanish, then returns home to talk with his parents in Spanish; when he plays with Spanish-speaking friends in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, where’s the incentive to learn that crucial English? Dyer asks.
“I think people who come to this country should learn to speak English because they’re doomed to failure before they even start if they don’t. They can’t get jobs. I don’t mean to look down on anybody. I just don’t want to doom anyone to failure.” Dyer says she knows that bilingual educators don’t either. "They want truly bilingual kids. And their goal is great. I think it’s wonderful. I wish I were bilingual. but I'm not; I don’t have the talent for it. And I think it's unrealistic to think that we can make everyone into truly bilingual people," she says. “We just don’t all have the facility for it.”
Right after the grand jury report appeared, Dyer found herself fielding requests to debate bilingual educators on television and radio. She says usually they come in pairs, while she invariably had to face them alone. She shows off literally stacks of letters from parents and teachers who she says supported her, but she says “most of the people against bilingual education either feel they don't have the background [like parents] or arc afraid to speak out [like teachers who don't want to “publicly buck the status quo]. ” I found one teacher, however, who didn’t hesitate about sharing with me her personal condemnation of bilingual education.
I met Teresa Krohn in the second-grade classroom where she teaches at Valle Lindo School in Chula Vista. Krohn is an attractive woman in oversized, stylish glasses who looks younger than thirty-four and wears her dark hair curling loosely around her shoulders. Her maiden name was Castaneda and she was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. But she came to El Centro as a young child with her mother and infant brother and father, who worked in the fields. “My mom went to school up to the third grade and my dad. . . .” She shrugs her shoulders. “Who knows? They wanted to come here for a better life. "The family spoke only Spanish, and little Teresa didn’t know a word of English when she finally started the first grade at the age of seven. “I can remember not being able to understand anyone on my first day of school.”
She can remember going out for recess on that first day; standing on the playground and holding her little brother’s hand. “I remember the bell rang and I didn’t know what to do. No one had explained to us that that meant you were supposed to line up. The teacher finally had to come down and get us. ” That’s the last memory Krohn has of her early education. She knows she got good grades from the start, and by the end of the first grade she was speaking fluent English. “I must have been confused at times. I don’t really remember, but it would have been natural. In any case, I got along. ”
Today Krohn speaks not only flawless English, but English with no remnant of Spanish shadings, something which she directly attributes to her avoidance of bilingual-style education. “I don’t believe in it,” she says emphatically. “I feel that I didn't get it and the fact that I didn’t was the best education that I got. I feel if I had been in a bilingual program, I would speak with an accent and I just wouldn’t have learned English as I did.” (She says the same holds true for her little brother, who didn’t go to college, but who now holds a good job with the City of El Centro.) Krohn charges that the bilingual instruction allows children to cling to their Spanish dependencies, “but you have to completely let go to learn something new.” She remembers a little Mexican-American boy in one of her classes who spoke English but insisted on calling her “Profesora Krohn.” “He had a friend in the class and he used to speak Spanish to him all the time,” the teacher recalls. “Then in the middle of the year, his friend moved away and the very next day he called me Mrs. Krohn. I hadn’t said anything to him. but you could just see that dependency leave.”
Nowadays, Krohn doesn't have many Spanish-speaking children in her classroom; the neighborhood around Valle Lindo contains more Filipinos than Mexicans. But she had her taste of bilingual teaching shortly after she got her teaching credential from San Diego State and was hired to tutor in English the children of migrant workers around El Centro. Even that tutoring in English was frustrating to her. “All I did was test those kids, and I decided I didn’t want to be doing that because they didn’t need to be pulled out of class. They would have done better if they weren’t pulled out. They needed to be treated like anybody else.” Krohn states that the language isn’t the reason such children don't do well. “It’s the culture. It’s the way their parents feel about education.” She remembers two particularly bright sisters who especially frustrated her. Their academic potential was obvious, “but they told me flatly that all they wanted to do was grow up and get married and get a job. They invited me to go out and pick tomatoes with them!”
Since then Krohn has fought to avoid teaching bilingual education. She says it was particularly difficult to do so right after Chacon’s bilingual-bicultural education bill passed. Chula Vista school administrators called together all the teachers fluent in Spanish and pleaded with them to volunteer for the program — then added that they could be transferred to it involuntarily if no offers were forthcoming. Krohn was in tears; she finally contacted the teacher’s union and got the legal ammunition to forestall any such involuntary transfers.
Krohn does think that small amounts of ESL-type classes can help brand-new immigrants for a very short time. And she’d like to see teachers better trained to understand cultural minorities. “For instance, in Mexico children are taught never to look adults directly in the face when they’re talking to them. Instead, the children look down. Here, teachers can get mad if a child doesn’t lock them in the eye when spoken to.” But of teaching children in Spanish herself, Krohn says, “I didn’t go to school to become a bilingual teacher. I went to school to be a teacher. And children learn best the younger they are. They learn a second language best when they’re immersed.”
This is one of the most crucial points in the bilingual debate: what is the best way to teach children a second language? Proponents of total immersion in the second language can point to some amazing results. The longest and best documented track record is in Canada, where for the last fifteen years, English-speaking children in special programs have been hearing (and then speaking) only French. French is the only language used with them and it’s used as the medium of instruction instead of as a subject of study (as is done in traditional foreign-language programs). The years of Canadian experience with immersion have proven not only that immersed children do become truly bilingual, but that they achieve scores in all other areas which are at least as high as their counterparts in all-English classes. The dramatic successes more recently have sparked the institution of similar programs in San Diego.
One such program is the one at Encanto Elementary School, where Spanish speakers like the Michel kids are studying alongside native English speakers like Chevelle Baker, a ten-year-old who’s been in the program since she was in first grade. English speakers are included in the Encanto bilingual program (duplicated at four other San Diego elementary schools) because bilingual programs by law can’t segregate minority students. But Chevelle’s parents, Shirley and Thomas, enrolled their daughter for a more personal reason. Although Mrs. and Mr. Baker are black, the husband’s grandmother was Mexican, and Mrs. Baker says she promised the older woman before she died that if the schools ever offered a special program in Spanish, Mrs. Baker would enroll her offspring. Today, the parents proudly show off Chevelle’s report card with its solidly above-average ratings; Mrs. Baker says she wants to keep Chevelle in a bilingual program as long as possible because now she can see the cultural and economic advantages bilingualism offers. The Bakers have also enrolled their six-year-old son. Tommy. In fact, they had to fight to get Tommy in. because demand from English-speaking parents for the classes for their children was so high. (Seats are limited because the program has quotas for the Anglo and Spanish-speaking percentages.) That’s one of Chevelle’s father's only complaints; he thinks the program ought to be more accessible to more English speakers instead of Spanish-speaking kids, “who ought to be working to improve their English.” He also thinks it’s a little unfair for Chevelle and her English-speaking counterparts to compete in Spanish-only classes against children whose mother tongue is Spanish.
In fact, a newer program in San Diego also immerses English-speaking kids in a choice of Spanish or French, and won’t accept children who already speak one of those two languages. These immersion classes were begun as part of San Diego’s magnet-school program to offset the effects of de facto segregation by offering such attractive educational programs at some schools that parents wouldn’t mind busing their children to them. Hal Wingard, who oversees the instructional aspect of these immersion programs, says many of the more than 800 children currently in them are racial minorities who come from low socioeconomic levels. But as a group, the immersion kids are chalking up above-average test scores in all areas — even English reading, which they’ve never been taught in school.
So why can’t you create similar immersion programs for Spanish-speaking children, programs using teachers who’ve been specially trained in immersion techniques and who could avoid the sins of the past (degrading children who don’t speak English, and so on)? Bilingual educators like Adel Nadeau reply that a crucial factor distinguishes Spanish-speaking kids who want to learn English from the English-speaking kids seeking Spanish fluency. Nadeau says English is the language of power and status; she says in the United States native speakers of any language but English face subtle discrimination. She says when you couple that with the fact that many Mexican-American kids start school speaking poor Spanish, something peculiar happens: immersion, rather than teaching the children a second language, tends to destroy their first language. "Instead of become bilingual, they become alingual.” The solution to this, Nadeau says, is to build up such children’s first language. Once it is well established, they can then master the second language. One of Nadeau’s favorite pieces of evidence seems to be a study of Finnish immigrant children in Sweden, where Swedish is the status language and Finns tend to be disparaged. It showed that when the Finnish children moved to Sweden when they were preschoolers or in the lower grades, they fell within the lower ten percent of Swedish children in Swedish language skills. But if they had had five to six years of schooling in Finland before emigrating, they approached the norms of Swedish children when tested in Swedish. Nadeau says the same thing happens to Chicano kids, so the solution is to teach them in Spanish first.
Another local bilingual educator further articulates the concept. “The Anglo kid feels good about himself — who he is and the way he speaks. He can afford the luxury of learning another language. It’s the frosting on the cake rather than something needed to survive.” Shouldn’t that decrease the pressure on Anglo kids and increase the pressure on minority kids to learn when immersed in their respective second languages? I asked her. “When there’s no pressure on us, we learn better than when there’s pressure,” she offered.
Of course bilingual critics like Terry Krohn flatly reject this theory. Krohn argues the better you know the first language, the harder it is to break its patterns and move into the second one. But I found another Mexican-American teacher — a fierce bilingual advocate — down in San Ysidro. She defended the case against immersion for Spanish kids more clearly than the bilingual administrators had.
Carolina Flores greeted me outside her classroom at Smythe Elementary School, which perches on a hill overlooking San Ysidro, the ocean, and Tijuana. The view is striking. Better than any other place I can think of in San Diego County, it seems to dramatize our relationship with the neighboring city. Flores was born in Loma Linda, California, the youngest of four children born to first-generation Mexican-Americans. Ironically, she looks far more Mexican than does Krohn. She keeps her thick, wavy hair long and simple. She wore a black skirt, black top, black jacket, and no make-up, and she looked a little like a nun, a little like some incarnation of Mexican womanhood.
She actually spent four years in a convent. then transferred to UC Riverside, where she says all her studies were geared toward becoming a bilingual educator. She studied bilingual programs in Mexico City, spent two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, and eventually wound up last year in National City, where her feisty battles in defense of the bilingual programs finally got her sent to a school without any bilingual programs, a move calculated to force her resignation. It succeeded. Now she speaks glowingly about the program at Smythe, where the principal is sympathetic and supportive. Flores teaches thirty-two first-graders, not a single one of whom is an Anglo, almost entirely in Spanish; they get only forty-five minutes of English instruction a day. The teacher is soft-spoken, but a fiery pride of la raza simmers constantly beneath her words.
She says, “When I was growing up, I saw my people suffer in traditional ‘immersion’ classrooms. I saw them lose their language, and in losing that, I felt they lost themselves. It’s a very personal and emotional thing for me.” When she started school she already knew English, but she says her brother and sisters didn't; she claims they bear the scars from their early immersion experience. Her brother, extremely shy and withdrawn, graduated from high school — but just barely. Neither of her sisters did well academically. “The English-speaking children in this country are exposed to a higher level of language than the Spanish-speaking kids who come to us,” she says. Many of the latter grow up in rural areas, watch no television, and don’t talk very much with adults. “In Mexican culture, children very definitely have their place.” If such children are tossed into all-English programs, Flores says they will eventually catch on, but by the time they do, they will have suffered a conceptual lag from which they may never recover. Most will have decided by then that they hate school. “Children can turn off to school from day one,” Flores says. “But if they have a positive experience, they turn on.”
I asked her what she thought of the black kids being immersed in Spanish in San Diego. Aren’t some of them probably in the same boat or worse than the Mexican kids whose Spanish isn’t well developed? Flores replied that she has grave doubts about how well they will do. “I think the parents are taking a very big risk in doing that [immersing them in Spanish] to them.” Later, Hal Wingard, the immersion program administrator, told me that the minority children are competing evenly with the Anglos. But even if Wingard accumulates irrefutable proof that immersion can work for everyone, it still won’t change Carolina Flores’ mind For her and for many bilingual advocates, more is at stake than simply teaching children English. Flores concedes that immersion may do that more speedily. “It’ll be fast and it’ll be quick and it’ll undo the first language,” she says. But she adds that immersing Spanish-speaking children in English severely damages their self-esteem. She says when the children forget Spanish, “it’s a denial of who you are, where you come from, everything. . . . When I was growing up I never had a teacher who looked like me. I never had a teacher who could pronounce my name. They called me Ca-ro-le-na instead of Ca-ro-lee-na. When you change a child’s name from Roberto to Robert, or from Pablo to Paul, there’s an identity crisis there. ... If you cannot express emotions in the first language that you learned, I think you’ve lost something of yourself. And I’ve heard it so many times. Invariably, the second and third generations who have lost their Spanish regret it.”
Flores’ words conjure up the memory of Terry Krohn. She still speaks Spanish today, but she admits that it’s “border Spanish,” the mixture of Spanish with Spanish-ized English words like el troque for truck instead of el camion. Krohn talks .to her mother in Spanish, but she says sometimes she can’t fully express herself, particularly when she’s talking about especially complex or abstract things. It doesn’t bother her, nor does it bother her that her young daughter doesn’t speak Spanish at all. “If I ever want her to learn Spanish, I’ll just drop her off down there [in Mexico] with relatives for a month or so, and I know she’ll learn it just like that.” she says with a snap of her fingers. Krohn says she’s very proud of her Mexican heritage. “When I hear Mexican music, my heart just pounds. Because of my parents, it’s part of me.” She recalls going to Mexico with her mother once to visit an aunt there and being overwhelmed with emotion when a mariachi band started playing outside the local cathedral. “I just cried and cried, I was so moved. ” Yet it’s also obvious that Krohn’s ties with that culture, except for her communication with relatives, are minimal. That visit to Mexico occurred when she was in high school, and she says it was the last time she was there.
Hal Wingard, the ardent proponent of immersion programs for English-speaking kids, strongly disagrees when you talk about immersion robbing children of their native language and cultural ties. “The purpose of immersion is not to produce monolinguals, it’s to produce bilinguals,” he insists. “If the Spanish-speaking child is in a home that values being Mexican, that values speaking Spanish, then that child is not going to lose his Mexican identity. Both the established Canadian programs and the newer San Diego ones prove that,” he says.
Still, Wingard doesn’t advocate scrapping the bilingual programs and instead immersing non-English speakers in English. He knows about the Finnish study which Adel Nadeau cites and Wingard says the Canadian researchers have found indications that something different happens when a minority-language child is immersed in the majority language. There’s not much hard evidence because all the Canadian programs have only immersed English-speaking children. None have operated the reverse way. (In Canada. English is considered to be the power language, although that's now changing in Quebec.) “French populations in Canada have chosen not to immerse. They’re afraid their children will become Anglicized and they don’t want that.” For similar reasons local bilingual advocates have shied away from the idea of special programs to immerse Spanish-speaking children in English.
I didn’t have a conclusion for this story. I don’t know who’s right. I don’t know if Terry Krohn and the people like her are exceptions. I don’t know whether Krohn would be a better or happier person if she were tied more closely to her Mexican roots. I don’t know if some children do learn a second language better when they’re older as the bilingual educators say they do. I personally wonder if the public school system, compelled by definition to be uniform and monolithic, doesn’t itself contribute to the problem by demanding a single answer for everyone. I suspect there is no such single right answer.