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When Bilingual Is Silver, Trilingual Is Gold
Special Contribution
By Domenico Maceri
Asian students in the US
"English gets boring sometimes" stated Donna Nguyen, a senior at James Lick High School in San Jose, California. Donna does not get bored very often. She can speak English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. She can also read and write these languages. So when she graduated from high school, she received a recognition for her fluency in the form of a newly-instituted bilingual certificate.

Her accomplishments are marked on her diploma as well as her transcripts. The bilingual certificate is a new program available only in a small number of American schools. It should be expanded to recognize and encourage multilingualism, which is essential to make it in today's world.

To qualify for the bilingual certificate, students need to demonstrate linguistic fluency and literacy in at least two languages. Students need to show their language skills by passing an Advanced Placement test in a foreign language if their native language is English. Students whose home language is not English must pass an Advanced Placement test in their home language and also pass the state's English standardized test.

Although the most likely combination is English-Spanish, the 82 students who met the criteria at Eastside Union School District in San Jose also included French and German.

Glendale Unified School District, northwest of Los Angeles, also recognizes bilingualism. On graduation day, students who can speak two languages wear a silver medallion and trilingual students wear a gold one. In 2004, one student qualified in Armenian, Russian, German, and English.

Montreal in Canada
Although the U.S. is a country of immigrants, the native languages brought in tended to disappear quickly. Indeed, being an American often meant speaking English and only English. Those sentiments are still alive and well but more and more people are beginning to see the value of bilingualism. It's not just the marketing value of two or more languages. International relations pretty much dictate that monolingualism is not just a disadvantage but a danger as well.

Serious shortages of bilingual personnel, for example, have been reported in many areas of government. Soon after 9/11, it was revealed that a vast amount of data had not been analyzed because of limited linguistic resources.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, US government officials have had to rely a lot on local interpreters and translators and the results have been far from positive.

The situation is so bad that the American government is considering a targeted military draft for people with special skills such as computer knowledge or foreign languages.

Unfortunately, bilingualism still conjures negative images in the minds of some Americans. Some fear a Balkanization of the country upon hearing the word bilingual. Images of Canada come to mind right away. Also, fear that bilingualism may not lead to integration of new arrivals pushes people to lobby for English-only laws.

Twenty-seven states have passed laws declaring English the official language, but nothing has changed with regards to reducing immigration nor the number of languages people speak.

Quebec City in Canada
Fear that immigrant kids were not learning English fast enough pushed California, Arizona, and Massachusetts voters to virtually do away with bilingual education. The laws eliminating bilingual education have been passed through the referendum process in which voters were asked to choose along simplistic lines of English-yes and Spanish-no.

Yet, most states are continuing bilingual education programs, which in spite of their name, are not designed to develop skills in two languages. Bilingual education programs in the U.S. aim to use the students' native languages as a springboard to eventual English-only instruction by ensuring that immigrant students don't fall behind academically those born in the U.S.

Developing bilingual skills is really the focus of dual-language schools which teach subjects in two languages. The numbers of these type of schools in the U.S. are very small but they are expanding rapidly as parents increasingly realize the value of bilingualism for their kids.

Unfortunately, dual-language schools do not go beyond junior high school. In the vast majority of American highs schools the focus is on English. So when some high schools begin to recognize and foster bilingualism, it's an event worth celebrating.

As English increases its dominance in the world as the language to know, it's too easy to rest on our laurels and let the others learn our language. It's also dangerous. The smart thing is to go for the gold.

Other Articles by Domenico Maceri
    Julián Castro's Monolingualism: a ...
    Biden's Immigration Plan: Between Trump and ...
    Legal and Illegal Immigration: A Winning ...
    World Cup: Beyond the Soccer Field
    John Kelly's Fails English and History

Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.






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