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"Bebe Moore Campbell on Bilingual Ed,"

by Bebe Moore Campbell September/October 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

When Henry Higgins took Eliza Doolittle under his wing in "My Fair Lady," the professor's challenge was to transform a street waif into a blue blood. Phase one was easy - a bath, a new coiffure, some fashionable clothes, and Eliza sure looked upper-class. But then the child opened her mouth.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, all right, but the Cockney rendition and the king's English version are about as far apart as, say, somebody flipping burgers for minimum wage and the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But the professor kept trying - this method, that method - and ultimately, Eliza not only looked like a lady, she sounded like one, too. In the end, Eliza's proficiency in standard English garnered her a brand new life, filled with upward mobility and expansive possibilities - not to mention a man.

Here in America we don't have Cockneys, but we do have speakers of Ebonics and Spanglish. These dialects have been cobbled together by people who, by virtue of historic legalized and current de facto segregation in housing and schools, have been cut off from the mainstream, not unlike Eliza Doolittle.

Bilingual education gave newly ar-rived Latino immigrants greater access to learning the language that might transform their lives. That education is costly and is now almost assured of ending. The linguistic problems of some African-Americans have never been adequately addressed by system-wide school programs.

Now California plans to mainstream native Spanish speakers, although mainstreaming hasn't improved the English proficiency of many poor blacks. Perhaps that's because the issue isn't bilingual programs versus sink-or-swim total immersion. The real issue is how to motivate people to keep trying, when historically they've been denied the rewards that have gone to other groups that make their striving worthwhile.

How does one make speaking standard English attractive to people whose entire lives are ghettoized? In the early half of this century, European immigrants were motivated. They knew that if they exchanged the language and culture of their native lands for English and American ways, the society would reward them with success. But America has never promised her brown and black children that kind of access.

In the past, this nation has made it clear that the jobs reserved for dark-skinned people required less speaking ability than an aptitude for manual labor. Now that business is using new immigrants to push native-born blacks out of even America's dirty work, the broken English that some in both groups speak is coded with bile.

Would Eliza have persevered in her English studies if the rewards had been cleaning the professor's toilets for the rest of her life? Would Finns, Swedes, Italians, or Germans?

When Latino immigrants and poor black Americans truly believe that speaking correct English will improve their lives significantly, most will learn it, whatever way they can. To the extent that America reneges on that promise, the nation will be what it's always been: a house divided, unable to understand all who live within.

Bebe Moore Campbell is author of the novel, Singing in the Comeback Choir.


The above commentary was broadcast on May 28, 1998, just before the vote on California's Proposition 227, which effectively ended that state's bilingual education program. Reprinted by permission of National Public Radio.


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