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Equity's Elephant In the Room

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The United States' treatment of its children who speak languages other than English has grown increasingly punitive, remedial and reductive.

It doesn't get the historical attention of Brown v. Board of Education, but 32 years ago, in Lau v. Nichols, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that "students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education." Since then, school districts have tried many new ways to teach English to English-language learners, including the development of bilingual education programs.

But children who arrive in our schools lacking English proficiency are only the tail of the elephant. In the national debate over educational equity, it's the millions of bilingual and multilingual U. S. children that are the elephant in the room, largely ignored by our schools and education policies.

Actually, "ignore" is too benign a word. For while bilingualism, and even multilingualism, have become the norm in most of the world--the European Union, for example, is encouraging its citizens to develop "pluralingual" capacities--the U. S. increasingly defines itself as one nation speaking English only.

In fact, since Lau, the United States' treatment of its children who speak languages other than English has grown increasingly punitive, remedial and reductive. English is the sole requirement for academic success. In Washington, the word "bilingual" has been dropped from official discourse, with even the Bilingual Education Act morphing into "Language Instruction for Limited English Proficient and Immigrant Students."

It seems, then, that we link equity with English only. But is losing a language other than English a desirable price to pay? Clearly the answer is "no"--for bilingual and multilingual children, and also for our society as a whole. Our bilingual students are penalized by standardized testing that privileges monolingual students. In a world in which understanding other cultures has become not merely an advantage, but a basic requirement for peaceful co-existence, a nation that hews to only one language will rapidly become isolated. From without, that would make us more hated by--and vulnerable to--our foes. From within, our democracy and values might be the victims.

Ofelia Garc-a is Professor of Bilingual Education in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at TC.

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