Should Refugee Children Be Taught English
A story from Georgia highlights a problem with students who come to America and don’t speak English.
According to the Brookhaven Post, two teachers were forced to resign from DeKalb County Schools after they were accused of “making pro-Trump comments, telling students they’ll be deported.”
DeKalb Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green issued a statement Monday in response to President Donald Trump’s Executive Order regarding temporary refugee restrictions and in a round about way to explain the actions against the two teachers.
“We have 102,000 students here. They come from more than 180 countries, and they speak 140 languages. We value them, we love them, and we respect what their presence here says about the goodness and generosity of America. Our diversity is our strength…
Our schools will be safe places for learning and teaching. In accordance with our Board of Education policies, we will not tolerate any form of bullying or discrimination … on or off District property … that interferes with learning or the rights of others.”
Both teachers disputed the accusations, claiming their comments were misunderstood. One teacher was an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher and the other a French and World Language Teacher. Given Dr. Green’s statement about the number of foreign languages spoken in his district, it is not unreasonable to think that their comments could have been misunderstood.
The situation underscores the challenges American schools have in teaching students whose first language is not English. Not only can these kinds of misunderstandings take place, but often, in an effort to cater to their native tongue, districts hire teachers simply because they can speak the foreign language and not because they are subject experts. This puts non-English speaking students at a disadvantage when it comes to subjects like science and math which can contribute to their dropping out of school or failing to go on to higher education because they were not sufficiently prepared by their K-12 classes.
These ESOL students would benefit most from intensive instruction in English, not only because it would help their education here and avoid misunderstandings as happened in GA, but also because it is the language of global commerce. To be less than thorough in teaching them English would put them at a long term economic disadvantage as well.
Consider the Republic of India. For decades their leaders had sought to banish the language of their British overlords and protect their native tongue. Mahatma Ghandi, who himself knew English well from his studies in the UK, was insistent on Hindi being the official language of government in India and required that it be taught in all schools. Government officials posited that fluency in English, “would result in the fading away of Indian culture and in the taking hold of an alien import that would enervate the citizen.” But that viewpoint could not survive the arrival of cable television and private channels where English was readily spoken and its use by India’s higher castes was made clear.
Madhav Das Nalapat, Professor and the Director of the Department of Geopolitics & International Relations at Manipal University, and the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian-India and NewsX channel wrote in The Conservative Online that, “By the mid-1990s, the wave of interest in the English language had become unstoppable. So much so that even after a government which had an allergy to English imprinted within its DNA took office in 2014, very little could be done to slow down the pace at which the language was spreading in the general population.”
The current Prime Minister Modi has recognized that India’s strategic interests require interactions with countries where English is spoken. India now has upwards of 240 million English speakers. With a rapidly developing country like India, whose population is and will continue to compete with workers educated here in the United States, we can scant afford not to make sure that our students learn English as well.
In that country, the public hungers to learn a language that will serve them in the marketplace and has learned English despite government prohibitions against doing so. Why should we not also be promoting mastery of that language here? To those who think that the imposition of the English language on immigrants and refugees is a form of cultural bullying, remember those 240 million people just in India who will be more than happy to take their jobs leaving America to support those unable to speak enough English to work. I hope Dr. Green is including English as one of his district’s diverse strengths.