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External Pressures on Families

Lily Wong Fillmore, University of California, Berkeley

The Problem

In recent years, languages other than English have been placed in greater jeopardy than ever before in the United States. In the past, the pressures against their maintenance tended to be internal rather than external ones except in the case of indigenous languages. Government policies forcing the linguistic and cultural assimilation of American Natives were major factors in the erosion and loss of the languages of many groups, and the pressures to assimilate were clearly external ones.

For immigrant groups, however, heritage languages were more often given up rather than taken away. Immigrants have had to acquire and use English to survive educationally or economically. But there was nothing prohibiting the use of their HLs at home or in the immigrant community. Giving up these languages were matters of personal choice for most immigrants. The pressures to stop speaking a heritage language in the past tended to be internal ones: the desire not to be different from one's peers; the desire to put some distance between oneself and one's immigrant origins (consider, for example, the epithets used by immigrants to describe recently arrived members of their own groups: "FOBs" (fresh-off-the-boat), "Mojados" (wetbacks), etc.); the belief that English is more useful, more powerful, and more socially beneficial than the HL is. There were, of course, external pressures acting on immigrants in the past. Children who did not speak English well were often placed in low track classes in school or in special education, simply because they were in the process of learning English and not because they had other learning difficulties. Recently, however, there have been external pressures that may in fact exacerbate the internal ones exponentially.

What are those external pressures? Consider the changes in educational policy, both at state and federal levels. In states like California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, voters have passed public referenda (Proposition 227 in California in 1998, Proposition 203 in Arizona in 2000, and Question 2 in Massachusetts in 2002) ending bilingual education as an educational treatment of choice for immigrant children who need linguistic assistance getting access to the school's curriculum. There are ongoing efforts to ban bilingual education in numerous other states as well. Most importantly, there are educational policies at the state and federal level (No Child Left Behind Act, Public Law 107-110, January 2002), requiring that all students, irrespective of language background and educational status, meet adopted curricular standards as measured by standardized assessments in English. These are tests with a bite - students do not get promoted to the next grade level unless they pass muster on the annual academic achievement tests given in most schools; the schools can be subject to restructuring if the students do not make acceptable gains each year in test scores; there are financial rewards in some states for teachers whose students perform well on the tests, and demerits (or worse) for teachers whose students do not perform well. Finally, with the high school exit examinations that have now been adopted by 30 states, there are some serious, lasting consequences for not performing well in these educational tests, which are given in English. Students who do not pass this test leave high school with a "certificate of attendance" instead of a high school diploma, even if they have taken and passed all required coursework. High school exit examinations vary across the states that have adopted them, with some covering more ground than others, but all of them test English language and literacy skills, mathematic skills, and reasoning - in English, of course.

Teachers, parents and students alike are aware of the consequences of not doing well on these tests. There is little wonder that their concerns are being transformed into pressure to abandon work on the HL whether in bilingual or language development classes, and to concentrate on strengthening English language skills. On the Hopi reservation in northern Arizona, for example, parents are asking why the schools are even thinking of teaching the HL when there is so much evidence that the children are not doing well in English (Bielenberg 2002). Shouldn't they be getting more English instead of Hopi, which so few tribal members speak anymore? And with the passage of Proposition 203 by Arizona voters, they ask, "are such programs legal?" Even in places where bilingual education is possible, parents and students are choosing English-only programs out of fear that any use of the children's primary language at school will delay or prevent the mastery of English. In two-way bilingual programs, this may mean that the only parents who would place their children in such a program are English monolinguals who are so confident that their children will continue to develop and use English at home that they do not worry about them being schooled in a language other than English. Parents of children who speak the minority language are more likely to worry about whether their children will learn English quickly enough and well enough in such a program to handle the tests they have to take.

Research Priority

That, then, is the problem, and I propose that the effects of the present societal pressures on children to master English on bilingual education (regular bilingual programs and two-way programs), and HL teaching programs of all sorts, be investigated and documented. How are the pressures influencing parental decisions? How are they affecting student participation in HL programs? How do they affect teaching practices - are teachers so worried that their students may not be spending enough time in English that they are reducing the time spent teaching in the HL? Are children more reluctant to use the HL in school or in social interactions outside of school? How do these pressures affect student attitudes towards the HL and participation in HL programs?

Among our discussions at the meetings in October, it was noted that some government agencies are concerned about improving our foreign language teaching capacity in the universities, since there is a lack of highly proficient speakers of languages such as Korean, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, etc., to work in intelligence agencies and in foreign service. This presents a major paradox. At a time when our society has a greater than ever need to develop our language resources, we have adopted educational policies that are undercutting the most important source of powerful speakers of the very languages we need: children who learn those languages at home.

Language Resource Center