‘He Is Handicapped If We Take Away His Language’ Ramon Garces Laredo For years educators have believed that the best way to help Spanish-speaking students assimilate themselves into the Anglo culture is to discourage them from developing their Hispanic backgrounds. The first classroom edict that MexicanAmerican children hear when they enter the first grade in elementary schools, from Brownsville to El Paso, is “Don’t speak Spanish.” It is not unusual for a first grader to be fined a penny for every word the teacher hears him speak in Spanish. Texas has a state law prohibiting teaching in any language but English in the public schools, except in foreign language courses. This approach has been frowned on by some educators, particularly teachers whose students are from home environments that have prevented them from learning a single word of English. In some South Texas communities there are teachers who violate the state law and teach bilingually whenever they can. “What are you going to do if you tell them ‘two plus two is four’ in English and they don’t understand?” asked a teacher in a school near the small cattleranch community of Encinal in LaSalle county. “You tell them in Spanish and they get it.” Some Texas educators who became aware of the effectiveness of bilingualism in teaching English to Spanish-speaking children several years ago began to look around for a school district bold enough to experiment in this method. Two of those educators were Dr. Theodore Anderson and Dr. Joseph Michael, both of the University of Texas. Three years ago they found the district they were searching for, located in a vast area of Webb County. The United Consolidated Independent School District’s many miles embrace cattle ranches with their many Mexican-American ranch-hand families who barely speak English; a part of the Laredo Air Force Base area with numerous families transferred from the northern U.S., who speak only English; The reporter who wrote this story for us, Ramon Garces of Laredo, said, in transmitting it: “A program such as this would have helped guys like me and others who were raised on the border in a bilingual environment. I couldn’t speak English until I was eight years old, and until I had struggled through first, second, and third grade without knowing why it was so damn hard.” 14 The Texas Observer and a suburb called Del Mar Hills, made up of high income families, both Latin and Anglo. THE IMAGINATIVE school administrators were willing to experiment. Concerned by the number of drop-outs in elementary school, particularly among the Spanish-speaking students, Superintendent Harold C. Brantley discussed the problem with Board President Joe Finley, Jr., manager of the huge Callaghan cattle ranch. They agreed that the children were having trouble staying in school because of language difficulties. School Board members approached diminutive, greying school teacher Victor Cruz-Aedo, superintendent of Holding Institute, a private school which is attended by many students from Mexico. CruzAedo’s program of bilingual teaching at Holding has taught English to many who are now Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey businessmen. Cruz-Aedo also had noted that most children who had received Spanish-language schooling in Mexico and who were later taught English bilingually at Holding advanced much faster than the Mexican-Americans who had been taught the three R’s only in English from the beginning. Brantley went to the Texas Education Agency and discussed the problem. He was referred to Drs. Andersson and Michael. Cruz-Aedo joined the United Consolidated District faculty and began the revolutionary bilingual -program in September, 1964. It was agreed that it would be a continuing program, with bilingual teaching in the first grade the first year, adding another grade each year after that until all six elementary grades are conducted bilingually. At the begining there were 69 first grade pupils, 17 of them English-speaking and 52 Spanish-speaking in the program; now there are 239 students and eight teachers in the first three grades. Mrs. Dolores Earles, originally from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, but educated in the United States, conducts one of the bilingual classes, she is one of the three original teachers in the program The class starts with the pledging of allegiance to the flagfirst in English then in Spanish. “Esta es mi mano derecha, esta es mi mano izquierda” \(This is my right hand begin in sing-song. “Me pongo la mano derecha sobre mi coraz6n” \(I place my allegiance comes out in Spanish “Le doy mi lealtad a la bandera de los Estados Unidos de America y a la Republica que representa; una nacion, bajo Dios, indi visible, con libertad y justicia para todos.” As the class progresses, Mrs. Earles will tell a story about a lost dog. Two dark-eyed tots called to the front of the class sing, “Oh, where, oh, where can my little dog be; oh, where, oh, where can he be?” But what if you’re looking for the dog in Mexico? asks Mrs. Earles. Then two little blonde first graders take over in almost perfect Spanish: “A d6nde, a d6nde se fue mi perrito, a donde, a donde se fue?” Mrs. Earles explains that there is no grouping of students on the basis of how much Spanish or English they know. She says that the young children have no trouble learning the alphabet in both languages. They are taught it first in English, then in Spanish. All the consonants, she points out, have the same sound in English, except some, like the “h,” which is silent in Spanish, and the “j,” which has an English “h” sound. The vowels are pronounced differently, and as the children learn the changes, Mrs. Earles says, they learn to put letters together to make sounds. Everything is taught bilingually, from geography to arithmetic. WHAT HAVE been the results? “Two results are obvious,” said CruzAedo. “The Spanish-speaking pupil who formerly withdrew from the group due to his inability to understand or to be understood is now part of the class.” The English-speaking children have also benefitted, he says, not only in learning a second language, but in grasping sounder English reading habits. Mrs. Earles tells of an English-speaking child with a speech impediment. He could not pronounce an “r” in English. But when he read a word in Spanish with an “r” sound, he had no difficulty. He could even roll the “r” with an extra effort. Eventually his “r” speech difficulty in English vanished. “His mother came down to ask if we were giving him speech therapy,” Mrs. Earles recalls. There are three types of pupils, Mrs. Earles says: those who speak only English, those who speak only Spanish, and those who speak a little of both, although they are not proficient in either. “The bilingual child is a helper to the other two types of students,” she says. She calls the bilingual pupil the richest student. “But he is handicapped if we take away his language.” Cruz-Aedo says that some administrators who have heard of the Webb county experiment are cool towards it, “but most of the teachers are for it because
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