A French connection to California's struggle over bilingual schools

About a month ago, you may recall, my granddaughter played with a French-speaking girl she met at a restaurant.

The newcomer from France, we learned, was starting second-grade at the San Diego French-American School in La Jolla.

After my column appeared, Christian Jarlov, the head of the 28-year-old independent school, invited me to see how our little friend was getting along in a school where French and English are spoken interchangeably.

Like many Americans, I am terrible at languages despite years of rote classwork.

In graduate school, I was required to demonstrate literacy in French and Spanish, which I could read passably well.

Fortunately, no one ever asked me to say anything.

When it comes to hearing and speaking Spanish or French, I am your typical dumbstruck, tongue-tied American.

It’s like having terrible teeth, this linguistic disability.

So you can understand my envy upon hearing teachers and students alternating from French to English on a campus that stretches from preschool through eighth grade.

Remarkably, Spanish is part of the curriculum, too. “It’s easier to learn a third language when you’re fluent in two,” Jarlov tells me. (I so wouldn’t know.)

Before visiting briefly with the French girl, I was introduced to one of her classmates, a second-grade standout, who speaks Spanish and Japanese at home, English and French at school.

Just think of that stretched brain, the cerebral equivalent of a yoga master. Do you think she has a leg up on the world?

Jarlov, a scholarly gentleman educated in France who’s taught in Louisiana and Asia, has no interest in addressing the provincial politics of California.

But the irony is not lost on me.

French-American School parents are paying about $16,000 a year for an educational mission that, 18 years ago, California voters rejected as bad for English-learning students.

Back then, bilingual education was widely dismissed as an academic ghetto where Latino children were warehoused, allowed to speak their native Spanish and not challenged to learn English. In this jaundiced view, large numbers of students lagged behind in English and either struggled in later grades or dropped out.

The old-school solution was to subject many Latino kids to the same sink-or-swim immersion that generations of immigrants had faced.

Proposition 227, which easily passed in 1998, discouraged bilingual education unless parents of non-English-speaking children specifically granted a waiver.

The ghetto metaphor is powerful, but it’s instructive that Proposition 58, the measure on the ballot that undoes 227, is not pushing as many cultural buttons as it did in 1998.

In the past 18 years, views about language have expanded, it seems. More than a 100 bilingual programs are up and running in San Diego County. (Most are Spanish-English, but two incorporate Chinese with other individual schools offering French, Hebrew, German and Vietnamese, according to the county Office of Education.)

More and more, it seems, parents are looking in the mirror at their bad teeth and praying the affliction is not genetic.

No question, multilingual people are better looking in an intellectual sense. What parent wouldn’t want their kids to shine on a global stage?

Many more parents are receptive to the self-evident notion that their children, especially during the early period of maximum “plasticity” (Jarlov’s word), can achieve the miracle of unaccented fluency in a foreign language.

Jarlov loves to talk about his students going to France with their parents. In restaurants, waiters can’t understand what these French children are doing with American custodians.

The magic show, however, depends on a yeasty mix of students to teach each other.

About a third of the SDFAS students speak French at home. There are Asians and Russians enrolled, but the majority are English-speaking kids seeking equal immersion in French and English.

The French-American School attracts native French teachers but also hires American teachers.

I dare anyone to call this academic setting a ghetto.

Think of California’s limitless supply of native Spanish speakers. Just as important to bilingual education, we have a supply of students who, like the French girl, speak only Spanish at home, ideal complements to English speakers who aspire to speak Spanish like natives.

Interestingly, opponents of Proposition 58 talk about a menacing underlying motive: The desire of English-speaking parents to get rid of the waiver and force more native Spanish speakers to enroll into bilingual schools.

The insinuation: Anglo parents are hiring Latino help to the disadvantage of English learners.

I find that reasoning weirdly paternal.

What’s good for Anglo kids is good for Spanish-speaking kids. Period.

By the way, I did catch up with the French girl at English lab.

She smiled for a photograph I texted to my granddaughter, a Los Angeles kindergartner who’s taking Spanish in a traditional class.

In a year, I suspect, the French girl will sound like an American girl. My granddaughter won’t be ordering meals in native-sounding Spanish.

For what it’s worth, I’ll be voting for Proposition 58 in large part because of the French girl.

I don’t believe bilingual programs were universally good in the ‘90s. They may have been harmful, especially if native English speakers were not in the same classroom and on the playground.

I realize it’s probably a bridge too far to have two teachers, one native foreign-language speaker and one American, teaching small classes, as is the case at the rigorous French-American School, which is accredited in France and California.

Still, I’m voting for 58 because the message needs to be sent, in English and Spanish and other languages, that public bilingual (or better, trilingual) education, when done right, is the gold, not the ghetto, standard.

As we were saying goodbye, Jarlov and I watched a group of preschoolers work together to push silky fabric up to form a tent.

The giggling kids rushed inside as the cloth structure collapsed around them.

“They’re having fun,” Jarlov said.

In any language, charming.


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