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Something to Talk About

English-only laws are restricting more than just what’s being said.

By Rebecca L. Weber

Zachariah Rubio unintentionally made national news last year when a peer asked him—in Spanish—to borrow a dollar. “No hay problema,” he replied, a quip that got him suspended from his Kansas City, Kansas, high school. Although the superintendent soon revoked the punishment, the incident reflects the changing nature of bilingual education.

About half of all states now have some form of English-only statute or constitutional amendment in place—at a time when more people than ever before live in homes where English is not spoken. Some 14 million of them are children, and in a growing number of places, lawmakers are changing the way they learn English.

In California and Massachusetts, students have just a year to get up to speed before completing the rest of their coursework in English. Arizona—where one in four residents is Hispanic—has the strongest English-only education laws, all but barring teachers from using non-English words.

Bilingual educators in these states find themselves having to follow the letter of such laws. “It is anti-immigration,” says Tempe, Arizona, elementary school teacher Nidia Lias of the policies that prohibit her from speaking Spanish to her students. Her colleague, Molly Cota, had to remove all the Spanish-language materials from her classroom. Teaching aides now translate only on a limited basis, and simple clarifications are mostly a thing of the past. Mentioning the dyeing of eggs led to confusion for one of Cota’s first-graders, who asked, “¿Como se puede morir los huevos?” (How can the eggs die?)

English-only laws have forced Arizona teacher Molly Cota to remove all Spanish-language materials from her classroom.Photo: Jeff Topping

Some English-language learners (ELLs) have also been shifted out of specialized classrooms. Cota now has half a dozen in a class of 22; the rest are divided equally among other teachers—some of whom, she says, have not been trained adequately in bilingual methods such as total body response and emphasis on visuals. “A weekend class is not going to do it,” says Lias, who compensates in her sixth-grade classroom by using color-coded number lines posted on the walls, constant repetition, and pointing. “I spent years working on my ELL, and my colleagues did, too.”

When it comes to learning a language, kids are like sponges. Immerse them in English, and they’ll be fluent in no time—or so goes the conventional wisdom.

English-only advocates say that assimilation and mastering English are crucial to success in school, the workforce, and society. But children who can speak English on the playground can’t necessarily comprehend grade-level academic content in English. Research suggests that kids will eventually become more proficient in both English and their mother tongue if they first become literate in their home language. A report sponsored by the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children, for instance, found that students with native language instruction fare better than English immersion students do.

English-only laws are also making it more difficult to attract bilingual education students to the profession, in part because they’re leery of environments where speaking another language is considered a liability, says Jill Kerper Mora, an NEA member who teaches education at San Diego State University.

The laws are also causing confusion. In Massachusetts, local—and changing—interpretations of sheltered English immersion (SEI) have caused schools to shift between mainstreaming and pulling out ELLs. Educators have, at different times, been offered work as lower-paid tutors, shuffled between buildings, or laid off.

Still, ELL teachers acknowledge the surface appeal of English-only laws. “Even somebody who has been teaching for a while [who’s] not exposed to second language learners, and hasn’t been educated in the process of learning a second language, [wouldn’t understand that] it takes years to achieve an academic language,” says Leah Palmer, an SEI teacher in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Given high-stakes testing and other pressures, that gradual learning curve can take a toll. While just 8 percent of the country’s teenagers have immigrated to the United States, almost one in four teen dropouts is foreign-born.“Right now, the message is, we don’t want you here, but we expect you to assimilate,” says Mora. “Well, which is it?”

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