Beyond Race, Class and Religion; English Literacy Should Be Job No. 1

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 6, 2007 | Go to article overview

Beyond Race, Class and Religion; English Literacy Should Be Job No. 1


Byline: Deborah Simmons, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

I had to laugh to keep from crying yesterday, when the following statistics from the Commission on No Child Left Behind popped into my e-mail box: "Since 1994, the number of English language learners in U.S. schools has grown from 2 million to 3 million students in 2000 and to 5 million students today. This represents a 65 percent increase in the English language learner population since 1994."

Now I know that by "English language learners" the commission means students for whom English is not their native language, but let's be real. While local governments, educrats and the unenlightened continue to make it a top priority for people from other lands to "learn" English, what about the children whose American roots run as deep as a Live Oak?

Look at English literacy another way. When I was visited Israel, Cairo, Ghana and Uganda in recent years, I always made a point of visiting schools, and was utterly delighted to speak with children who spoke multiple languages. They spoke English, of course, but also, because of colonialism, they spoke French, Hebrew, German, Arabic, Dutch and tribal or regional dialects. Yet, here in American, we've allowed the functional-illiteracy rate in the nation's capital to rise to 36 percent. (God almighty help us if we have to revert to signatures of X's.)

Every language has distinctive beauty and perfect idiosyncrasies, and English is no different. And where would America be without the huddled masses that came here to be free?

The literacy problem grows because the common national identity American English seemingly is a priority no more. We teach Vietnamese children in their language, Latinos in Spanish. What in heaven's name are we teaching American children?

How shameful in a country that once enacted laws that prohibited slaves from reading. For generations, blacks utilized the Bible as a language instructor. And it wasn't just blacks either. Scots, Irish and Italians depended on the Bible, too, and not just for nourishing the soul.

We have a moral obligation to educate our young so that the next generation is better off than the current one. We have fallen way short of that responsibility and, in some instances, have actually moved backward. In D.C., for example, students used to take courses in foreign languages French, Spanish, Latin, Russian in high school, but often beginning in elementary school. Today, students learning a foreign language are from other continents but being taught English.

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