FRENCHVILLE — Dismantling bilingual education would not rid the United States of its language problems, and a congressional attempt to make English “official” would stifle a range of voices, say bilingual educators in Maine.
Gilbert Albert, director of bilingual education projects for St. John Valley schools, says children with limited English who are enrolled in long-term bilingual education programs “are way up on achievement scales.”
Reacting to a bill introduced Tuesday in the U.S. House of Representatives that would kill federal support for programs that promote bilingualism, Albert said that people who don’t speak English enter the country daily.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., would declare English to be the national language and require all citizenship ceremonies, ballots and federal publications to be in English.
Seventeen states have enacted legislation making English their official language.
“Bilingual education is perhaps the most damaging of this politically correct government’s infatuation with language multiculturalism,” King said in a statement. “Efforts to promote bilingualism create divisions in American society and exclude non-English speakers from pursuing the American dream.”
Astonishment and bewilderment met his proposal among bilingual educators in Maine. Albert said that when legislators “look at ways to cut the budget, everything is fair game. The proposal is one that shoots from the hip. They are not looking at the research done on bilingualism.”
Yvon Labbe, director of the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine and president of Actfane, a group looking for action on behalf of Franco-Americans in the Northeast, said the proposal “makes no sense. The country is officially English and that’s enough.”
He called the bill an attempt “to legislate language and to stifle voices. Those are people who fail to recognize language diversity as a resource. We should instead inform legislators that we have an untapped resource that is valuable worldwide.”
Labbe called the legislation “a hate-oriented kind of thing. It’s easy to have two languages, maybe even three or four, as it is done in Europe. We don’t need language police.”
Barney Berube, director of federal projects for language minorities in the state Department of Education, said, “I believe (former first lady) Barbara Bush called this type of legislation an ethnic slur.”
Berube called the proposal a “perennial bill.” Bilingual education programs in Maine, he said, serve more than 2,000 children. The programs are funded with local tax dollars and federal Title VII money. Federal bilingual education money in Maine is worth about $1.5 million, he said.
He said the loss of federal money for bilingual education in Maine would “make for tough sailing. Maine has a pretty good record of doing things.”
Berube said two big projects in Maine are serving the French population of the St. John Valley and the Passamaquoddy Indians at Indian Township.
“The knowledge base we have suggests that native language instruction works better than any other approach,” he said.
Children can develop dual fluency easily, added Berube. “Given the positive outlook of the last five years, it is hard to understand the interest in trying to dump it.
“Bilingual program children do well. Education should be available in language people understand. Most unilingual people are not against bilingual programs,” said Berube.
Albert added that studies show long-term bilingual students do well on achievement scales.”
In an interview four years ago, Robert Rioux, a retired University of Maine professor of French, decried the lack of mandatory foreign language education programs in this country’s schools.
“Americans are doing themselves a great disservice, given the changing global economy,” he said. “The economic pinch is now being felt from not requiring people to know another language.”
He said: “This language gap has been created by cultural arrogance in the United States. It’s because of the economic power of the U.S.”
Rioux advocates students’ beginning to learn foreign languages at an early age.
Albert said he overheard a comment at a recent seminar: “Anyone who believes they can function in the United States without knowing English is crazy, and whoever thinks they will be able to function after the year 2003 with only one language is crazier.”