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June 10, 2014
Bruce Maiman: English already is the national language

bilingual_education.JPG(June 10 - By Bruce Maiman, Special to The Bee)

I don't know why we waste our time on things like this.

The state Senate voted last month to roll back key sections of Proposition 227, with supporters claiming children in other countries are successfully learning multiple languages.

Prop. 227, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1998, required that public schools teach their classes in English. But if Senate Bill 1174 is approved, it will appear as a ballot measure in November 2016.

The rollback would give schools local control to determine whether kids should learn in their native language instead of English. Supporters, including the bill's author, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, frame it as a bilingual education issue. Being bilingual, they say, is better for students.

Lara needs a reality check.

"It's true," Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Escondido, told me, "research shows that children exposed to a second language have some degree of intellectual gain, but only if the child already speaks the primary language."

In America, the primary language is clearly English. We speak it, educate in it and conduct business in it. English is not only the language of commerce in the United States; it has become the international language of commerce, science, politics and the arts. It is the dominant language of our global society.

Wyland, a Fulbright scholar in international studies and a former school board member, tells of sitting next to a German engineer on a flight. "When I told him how decades ago, many institutions required a reading knowledge of German to get a Ph.D. in science, he just started laughing. He said, 'Everything is in English, every important journal. If you don't publish in English it really doesn't exist. I'm making my presentation at an international conference in English. It's all in English.' "

I checked multiple journals in multiple fields in multiple countries - weighty, pedantic research. They're all in English.

Countless multinational companies are mandating English as the common corporate language in order "to facilitate communication and performance across geographically diverse functions and business endeavors," the Harvard Business Review recently reported. All pilots who fly internationally must speak English.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary and former Harvard University president, questioned the merits of high school foreign language requirements "because of English's emergence as our global language" - what some call "Englishisation."

Of course, children in other countries are successfully learning multiple languages. Because they're learning English!

English is also the mainstay of the Internet, the language in which most information and websites are available, and critical to both e-commerce and education.

Lara, however, calls it "linguistic tyranny" when politicians "decide what language our kids are going to learn."

Except politicians needn't decide anything. The only thing necessary to compel anyone to speak English in this country - students or immigrants - is the economic one.

SB 1174 is as frivolous as a law mandating that English be the national language. English already is the national language. If you want to thrive, you must learn English. That's all the law you need. Anything else would be linguistic myopia.

"My first language was Spanish," Assemblyman Rocky Chávez said. "But when I went to school it was all English."

Before politics, the retired Marine colonel founded a charter high school located in his Oceanside district and served as its director from 2002 to 2008.

He recalls: "I can't tell you how many Latino mothers I ran across who told me: 'Don't bother teaching my kids in Spanish. You teach 'em English. I'll make sure they understand Spanish.'"

So why did Lara's bill pass on a 27-8 vote in the Senate, with similar success likely in the Assembly?

The fear of the race card bludgeon: Vote against this and you'll be characterized as anti-Latino, and we all know what is the state's fastest-growing demographic, don't we?

We all know a political opponent wouldn't hesitate to use flame-throwing rhetoric because we all know plenty of voters would be easily fooled by such blather, right? C'mon: nearly 300,000 "highly informed" members of the electorate cast their ballots for accused gun-runner Leland Yee last week.

To be sure, there's nothing wrong with learning another language, as Wyland and Chávez will agree. It's an enriching experience. It can also make you more marketable, but not if you aren't first fluent in English.

Nor is this about encouraging anyone to ignore their culture or heritage; it's about encouraging people to understand that you won't be hugely successful if you don't learn English.

That doesn't mean you can't get a job earning perhaps even a decent wage, but college? Grad school? A CEO? A surgeon? Not without English.

Ironically, when Lara argued for his bill on the floor of the Senate, it illustrated perfectly why we don't need it: He did it in English.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.