Oregon Live: Oregon voters will parse English immersion debate

Oregon Live

Oregon voters will parse English immersion debate

Measure 58, which claims the best way to learn English is to immerse children in it without regard to their native language, squarely fits with a language controversy as old as America itself.

Some supporters say immersion is the way since the 18th century: sink or swim, assimilate. Others say that wasn’t always true. Historically, some immigrant children were taught in a language other than English when they arrived, even as far back as the 19th century, including in Oregon.

The rise and fall of U.S. immigration rates, with the accompanying alternating attitudes towards immigrants, influences the debate. Language, especially English immersion, most recently has been cast as a surrogate for an anti-immigrant stance.

“The polemics about language are inextricably linked to newcomers who give the appearance of not wanting to become part of the melting pot,” said Carlos Ovando, professor at Arizona State University. “Language allows people to take a xenophobic position and doesn’t make them look so bad.”

Others see bilingual education as “an experiment that was not successful,” said Rosalie Porter, author of books on immigrant children’s education. “It is the responsibility of the schools to give children English. It’s a pro-immigrant idea; it’s a civil rights issue. Our immigrant children deserve a quality education.”

In Oregon, where 15 percent of English learners are taught part of the day in their native tongue, both supporters and opponents cast the measure as an education rather than immigration proposal.

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