Other Discussions on Language

Learning & Teaching Bilingualism

Keith Cordes recalls a well-established success: "Didn't Berlitz start the immersion teaching a long time ago - even with his own family at home, where each member had a different language and each had to speak the others' languages to communicate?"


The response to the memo about bilingual education reveals widespread resentment. One reason is that it gives even bad native Spanish speakers an unfair advantage. Tim Brown, who has served the U.S. government around the world (mostly in Latin America) and who now lives in New Mexico, describes the experiences of his four children who got total language immersion in the course of their travels, notably in Spanish:

"Two now have U.S. university educations and U.S. teaching degrees but cannot teach in the U.S. because they don't have all the local requirements created by the teaching guilds to limit competition. As a consequence, Hispanic American teachers who are barely literate in Spanish and speak with atrocious grammar and worse accents often tried to correct their Spanish. The key to their learning was three-fold, total immersion under top-quality native speakers as teachers, family support and hard working students. Regrettably, it is exceptionally rare for even one of the three conditions described above to be met in the average American class-room, much less all three. The students are not the problem. The problem is that we have very few qualified teachers, probably even fewer dedicated parents who provide disciplined home environments, and students who are rarely asked to work hard and are almost always "honored" whether they deserve it or not because of misguided hyper-egalitarianism [we honor all our students at our school -including the n'er-do-wells, etc]. Until we change this approach, even if we keep on pushing for fully "bilingual" schooling, all we will really continue to accomplish, with but rare exceptions, is graduating students who are barely literate in two languages instead of just one."

Ronald Hilton - 05/15/98

Bill Ratliff seconds Tim Brown's remarks: "Tim Brown's comments hit the heart of the matter. I would emphasize one point I have observed, and that is the importance of getting children started at as early an age, and in as natural a setting, as possible. I taught English language and literature for several years at Tunghai University in Taiwan. My neighbors and English department colleagues, an English couple, had two girls, aged about five and seven when I left. With their parents they spoke English, with the university students who visited the house, they spoke Mandarin, and with the maid they spoke Taiwanese, a Chinese dialect totally different from Mandarin. They turned flawlessly - at least in the English and Mandarin that I understood - from one person to another and switched languages without the slightest realization of what they were doing. They had the support Tim mentions at all levels and the results were fantastic. I believe this is common enough in Europe where exposure to various languages comes so naturally. "

Ronald Hilton - 05/16/98

President Emeritus Robert Gard of the Monterey Association of International Studies adds this comment to the language debate:

When stationed in Heidelburg in 1962/3, I put my daughter, who knew no German, into the fourth grade of a German school with the full support of the Principal of the US dependent school. I did not move into the military ghetto, but stayed on the "economy." Within a few months, you could not tell the difference between my daughter and the other students. She ended up majoring in German; did her junior year at the University in Marburg, living in the dorm with the German students, not a US group studying in Germany; and taught German for two years after finishing college and before earning her masters in international affairs. All this to say throw the young into the classroom, support them, and they will do fine!

Ronald Hilton - 05/17/98

Dwight Peterson, who spent many years in Latin America, writes: I believe in total immersion as the way to teach and learn a language. My two sons preferred Spanish when we were in Argentina and Chile. We had maids who spent a lot of time with our children, as everyone does in Latin America, and Spanish prevailed. It was also the street or play language. The great majority of children we are talking about who are involved in the language problem in school here in America do not, obviously, have English speaking maids who give them an added boost in the language. Moreover, their neighborhood language is probably not English. That may be an argument for bilingual education from those on that side of the fence. But school is an institution respected by immigrants especially, and instruction in English is something all will pursue with vigor.

Ronald Hilton - 05/17/98