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English fluency: The foundation of success

By Nancy Salvato
web posted October 10, 2005

According to Wikipedia, (in the United States) "Living an exclusively Spanish-speaking life is viable in some areas due to the constant influx of immigrants and the prevalence of Spanish-language mass media." Also, many American manufacturers label products in Spanish and retailers provide dual-language advertising and in-store signage.

In the movie Spanglish, the character Flor (played by Paz Vega) moves herself and her daughter from Mexico to Los Angeles where 48 per cent of the people speak Spanish; a place where she can feel at home. Subsequently, she finds it unnecessary to learn English until she realizes that she needs to be able to communicate her feelings with the people who have hired her as a housekeeper/nanny without relying on her daughter Cristina to translate for her.

In the beginning of the movie, when forced to keep a stronger eye on her daughter, Flor realizes she must navigate an English speaking environment to raise her income level while working one job instead of relying on two low paying jobs where English is not required. She later becomes determined to learn to speak English in the three months they are staying in Malibu with her new employers and succeeds in learning to communicate with her English speaking family. The prevailing theme of the movie is that although the Mexican mother and daughter both are able to assimilate, they understand the importance of and hold onto their cultural values.

As an educator, I was picking up on another theme playing out in the movie. Those who communicate in Spanish can get by in their native tongue but will achieve greater success if they can communicate in English. So why is it that our schools leave so many English learners behind?

There are many in the academic community who believe that bilingual education is failing our students and that immersion in English instruction is the best way to assimilate into the school system. Others argue that it is important that English Learners value their culture and not leave their native tongue behind. Who is right? There are many variables which must be considered before answering that question.

The educational goals of any school are that all students should be capable of doing grade level work. Some would argue that students should be able to demonstrate their proficiency in their native language. However, as we've seen in the movie, being able to navigate in English is necessary to achieve greater personal and financial success. Although Flor knows Social English, certain skills require knowledge of Academic English. This should be mastered in the schools.

In order for students to become proficient in grade level academic content, they must be instructed in English as soon as possible. The problem with some bilingual programs is that they are taught by instructors who do not possess English fluency, they rely on Spanish instruction, and they don't teach the same academic content that is required of English speaking students. In this area of expertise, highly qualified teachers are extremely important and unfortunately there are not enough of them to go around. It is unreasonable to enroll students in a sub par educational environment where students often languish for years getting further and further behind and becoming more and more isolated from their peers.

The best bilingual programs are referred to as two way or dual immersion. According to Collier's research(www.cal.org/resources/digest/ed379915.html), when implemented correctly, "Language minority (Hispanic) students in two way programs experience more long-term educational gains than students in other bilingual or English as a second language programs." But because of the shortage of qualified instructors, students may actually benefit more from English immersion in an ELL class.

Most elementary schools don't include being fluent in two languages as an educational goal. When these schools implement a dual immersion program, they must draw on more financial resources in order to provide textbooks in two languages, sometimes hire two qualified teachers to teach the content properly if one cannot provide appropriate instruction in two languages, and the curriculum must be taught in less time because additional time is expended on learning two languages. This must be done at every grade level because if you don't continue using a language academically, you will lose what has been learned.

In states like Illinois, where schools are required to offer bilingual programs, it would be a great disservice to place students in a setting where it is impossible to attain a sustained high quality educational experience. It is better to allow individual school districts to determine whether this type of program can be offered responsibly. Like it or not, the goal of the school system is to prepare students to achieve success in an English speaking environment. To that end, immersion is sometimes the most feasible solution.

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is an experienced educator and an independent contractor with Prism Educational Consulting. She serves as Educational Liaison for Illinois Senator Carole Pankau. She works nationally and locally furthering the cause of Education Reform. Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2005

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