I just finished watching my daily hour of PBS news and I’m irate. Sometimes American insularity and small mindedness is cute and amusing (as De Tocqueville imagined) but sometimes it isn’t. Listening to a Republican senator ramble on about how “English First” is what true Americans insist on, just “got my goat” – a policy and mindset that is simply racist and racism to me isn’t very American. I’m speaking about the Republican fantasy of creating an America where everyone speaks English and drinks beer and goes to church – that’s it in a nutshell.

English Only is something I’ve seen as a teacher in our school system. Question.

A teacher has 1.5 hours a day for “English”. In the grade 4 class are many ESL students. The teacher allows students to read for pleasure for 30 minutes of the period. The students can choose their own book. Some of the ESL students choose books in their own language – Tamil, Irdu, Farsi, Somali, Korean. The teacher allows this, no questions asked. Should the teacher be reprimanded?

I’ll give you my answer in a moment but I’ll first take the long route.

There is a very deep misunderstanding of the relationship bwtween literacy in an L1 and literacy in an L2. Most, many teachers too, believe that they are distinct and separate. You gain competence in each separately. If you want to get better at English, read English. If you want to get better at Icelandic, watch Icelandic movies.

This is a very dangerous myth pervading our profession, us English teachers. Literacy is not discrete knowledge. There is only one kind of literacy and it isn’t language specific. It is something deep and beyond a language itself. It is a way of thinking about text, sound and “fury”. As you build literacy in one language, you so build literacy in another….. The best thing you can do for a young second language student especially is to not neglect their own L1 literacy and language skills. These are crucial and make for a successful, intelligent adult. Here’s a presentation that gives a great overview of this topic – a must read. Also, this book is the ideal reference for any serious teacher’s shelf.

Durgunoglu, A. & Goldenberg, C. (Eds.) (2010). Language and literacy development in bilingual settings. New York: Guilford.

Now back to the question. No, certainly not, the teacher shouldn’t be reprimanded but applauded. But the reality is quite different. That example is true and what I used to do in my own ESL classroom. However, I had to do it secretly, in our little portable, with the children sworn to a code of secrecy (no kidding). Otherwise, I’d have been asked to explain and despite research and truth on my side, ¬†power and old perceptions would win the day. We’d all be “English Only”.

And that’s the card Republican’s are playing. No thought about what’s right, what’s researched, what helps a student succeed in the long term. Only subversive thoughts of purity and cleanliness (to borrow Claude Levi Strauss’ term for the most evil and universal archetype. ).

A country is its people. Period. Not its language or the color of its eyes or the money in its bank. Let’s get our students loving language and the learning will arrive. To end my rant – some levity, some comedy. You’ll enjoy this if you’ve read this far….