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THE BIG FIX

How to leave no child behind. What do L.A. kids need to thrive?

Speak globally, learn locally

December 29, 2007|BY RUBEN MARTINEZ | Ruben Martinez is a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University.

I have thought a lot about language since the birth of my twin daughters this year. I speak to them in Spanish, my partner in English, and I can't help feeling that this just isn't enough.

Frankly, I'm embarrassed that I live in a state that banned "bilingual education." Those with a long political memory will recall Proposition 227, approved by the voters in 1998. It was a culture-war wedge dressed as an education issue, and no matter whether you think it helped or hindered language acquisition, it did nothing to prepare California for a global future that's already arrived.

We should view the knowledge immigrant children have of their native languages as one of our greatest strengths. Although there are about 32 "dual-language immersion" schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (most are Spanish/English, with a handful Korean/English or Mandarin/English), this is far too modest for a city that calls itself the "capital of the Pacific Rim." We need trilingual classrooms in which the immigrant kids tutor the native ones and vice versa.

This would help the cause of tolerance and understanding, but it's not about sugary multiculturalism -- it's about economics. To be competitive, everyone from the CEO to the customer service rep must be agile culturally and linguistically. English, Spanish and at least one Asian tongue ought to come with a public school education.

We turn out immigrant kids today with shaky English and a withering native language, and native kids with shaky English and a couple of tourist phrases in a second language. It is time for Californians to start speaking in the tongues we hear all around us. That's the kind of world I'd like my daughters to inherit. Which means I had better start taking classes in Armenian. Like now.

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