Home Susan Yerkes Dual language – say si!

Dual language – say si!

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Immersion-language programs in school are becoming increasingly popular, but when I moved here from Chicago as a child, almost every campus stressed a policy of English only.

A lot of my friends grew up in homes where Spanish was spoken, at least part of the time. For some of those folks, the memory of being forbidden to speak Spanish – even punished for doing so – still rankles. Others recall parents who encouraged their kids to communicate in English no matter what was spoken at home. To them, it was a question of upward mobility.

Julián Castro, a rising star of the Democratic Party, had to engage a Spanish tutor when he was mayor of San Antonio to bring him up to speed on the language. His mother, Rosie, a powerful Latina activist, spoke English to Julián and his twin brother, Joaquin. At home and in school, the boys studied Latin, Japanese and German. Yet, when you hail from San Antonio, Spanish is an incredibly useful language. Plus, in these post-North American Free Trade Agreement days, it’s a critical business tool.

I still remember how impressed I was back in the 1990s, when a couple I knew enrolled their daughter in an Alamo Heights elementary school’s cutting-edge Spanish-immersion program – one of the first of its kind in the area.

Language-immersion and dual-language programs have come a long way in a relatively short time. As this school year gets going, LOCAL Community News reporter Noi Mahoney writes that the demand for such courses has exploded in the last decade, with more than 110 area schools, both public and private, offering the curriculum.

As the Latino population in America steadily rises, Spanish is increasingly the nation’s predominant second tongue. In 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau identified about 17 million Americans as native Spanish speakers. By 2015, the number climbed to 41 million, with at least half also fluent in English.

The increase in Spanish-speaking Americans has led some to worry about the future of English. That’s not a new phenomenon, either. English has never been legally established as the official language of the United States (or its lingua franca – so to speak), although some state legislatures passed laws making it so in their jurisdictions. (Illinois lawmakers, in a linguistically misguided move, once ruled “American” as the state’s official language, but it was quietly repealed – 46 years later.) And, as far as attacks on the Queen’s English are concerned, experience with instant messaging and texting has convinced me these are the real threats.

While immersion versus dual-language programs is not a big hot-button political issue in Texas, it recently has been elsewhere. In the past 20 years, California, Arizona and Massachusetts all passed state laws eliminating bilingual education programs for students whose native languages were something other than English, replacing them with “immersion-only” curriculums. California and Massachusetts have since repealed such legislation.

In fact, there’s a completely different and powerful argument for dual-language programs. According to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, bilingual children develop high agility and speed in problem-solving, and higher selective attention and inhibitory control, in addition to other benefits. If true, the increase in bilingual programs in San Antonio schools is a welcome trend, indeed.

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