February 22, 2007
In the mid-1950s, French educator Jacques Barzun said, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." He correctly recognized the sport as a cultural touchstone that united us.
Half a century later, finding a tie that binds us as a nation is a little tougher. So let's go back to basics. How about the English language?
This probably seems like common sense. After all, English is already universal. It's not only spoken by an overwhelming number of Americans, it's also understood by hundreds of millions worldwide. It's the language of aviation, and thus international commerce, as well as the default language of the Internet. Everyone, from stock traders in New York to software designers in Mumbai, uses English to conduct business.
But instead of using the power of our native tongue to unite the country, our official policy has been to balkanize the United States.
Executive Order 13166, issued by Bill Clinton in the summer before he left office, mandates that any group that receives any federal funding must provide its services in any foreign language that may be spoken by someone likely to receive those services. So instead of having one official language, in practice we have dozens.
Predictably, this leads to problems. As David Leahy, the election supervisor for Miami-Dade County, told PBS in 2001, "We print every ballot in Spanish, English and some ballots in Creole." So much for the idea that an election should promote national unity. No wonder we sometimes have problems figuring out who won.
Enough. It's time for a new approach, one that unites all Americans instead of dividing them -- and one that stops putting the children of immigrants at an economic disadvantage. English should be our official language. This can, and in fact must, start in our schools. And we've already taken an important step.
Under President Bush's leadership, we've made significant progress toward helping all American students become fluent in English. Previously, the federal bilingual education program had promoted non-English instruction; in fact, three-fourths of the program's funding for public schools was reserved to teach students in their native languages. Instructors weren't even required to know English.
That's changed. Now, the goal for non-English speakers is to make them, well, English speakers. Their teachers have to know English, and schools must chart student progress. Schools are required to inform parents when their child is placed in an English-learning course and to disclose the course's methods, its requirements, and alternative ways their child can learn English.
Still, lawmakers should go further, ensuring that federal funding for English-language learners is used exclusively for courses that move students toward English fluency as quickly as possible, not on bilingual-education programs that indefinitely postpone their ability to function independently in their new homeland. Students in bilingual classes learn English more slowly than students in regular classrooms do. Every student learning English as a second language should do so in an immersion program. That'll help them learn English more quickly, so they can make the move to a standard classroom.
Immersion works. Just ask California voters, who opted out of bilingual education in 1998 in favor of immersion. Since then, according to the Lexington Institute, the state has seen major gains in students' English fluency, with the best progress charted in the districts that are taking steps to emphasize early English fluency.
One of the federal government's primary jobs is to unify Americans. Besides being our native tongue, English is the language of commerce worldwide. Every student should be able to speak it fluently. That's the only way to ensure that every child can make progress toward the American dream.
First appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times