When I first heard maybe 30 or 40 years ago that schools were going to introduce “bilingual education,” I was thrilled.

My family had lived in two Spanish-speaking countries as I was growing up and, for a long time thereafter, we kids were all bilingual.

But, to my horror, “bilingual” did not mean that or anything like it. Instead, teachers would instruct children in their native language.

Fine, you are going to teach them how to speak English – but the classes are all in Spanish, or whatever the child’s native language is.

I learned early on the best way to learn a language is total immersion. If you are learning Spanish, as we were, the class was all in Spanish, nada mas.

I went home for lunch crying in my first day in sixth grade in Quito, Ecuador. It was the American School and they promised the first half day would be in English. It was not.

I didn’t understand a word they were saying. But a day or so later, the teacher drew a big circle on the blackboard and said, “circulo.” OK, that’s the word for circle. It was all downhill from there.

Within weeks, we were bilingual. Two years in Ecuador and two more in Mexico City and we were all as comfortable in Spanish as we were in English. Then my older sister moved to France and also became fluent in French.

I love to hear truly bilingual people talk to each other. They use a phrase in one language and one in another, switching back and forth without even thinking about it.

You hear something like, “Vamos al movies tonight.”

Sorry, you don’t teach someone English by talking to him in Spanish. The kid goes through 12 years of “bilingual” education and speaks mainly Spanish, with some English thrown in.

He may still have to translate what he wants to say in his mind before speaking, instead of thinking in the new language.

Being fluent in more than one language gives one a leg up over the competition in the job market and you can get more and sometimes better jobs if you are conversant in more than one language. And children can pick up a new language a lot easier than adults.

At the lower end, bilingual sales clerks are in demand in retail stores. But higher up the food chain are jobs in foreign service, even highly paid ambassadors who can chat comfortably with the natives of the country to which they are assigned.

There is a growing trend toward true bilingual education. The call it dual-language schooling. Fox News reported recently that children in these schools are taught in more than one language in a total immersion atmosphere that turns out truly bilingual and multi-lingual graduates.

Teaching kids to speak English by speaking to them in their native tongues is a travesty. So too is the habit of some immigrants who are so interested in becoming absorbed in their new culture, they don’t allow their kids to speak in their native languages.

Wrong.

Let them speak both. They’ll be richer for it and so will you. My kids complained that I never spoke Spanish in the home, thus exposing them to another language. My problem was there was no one to talk Spanish to. And by then my own Spanish had begun to atrophy from lack of use.

And when I did try, their mother would say something like, “Oh, speak English. Nobody can understand you.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think it behooves immigrants to adapt as much as possible to their new culture. English is the language of the marketplace and they should learn English.

But they shouldn’t kill their native language. Speak that at home where it is the most comfortable. But use English – or whatever the language of the market place is – in their new environs.

In Europe, where one crosses international boundaries as often as we cross state lines over here, it is not uncommon to find people who speak six, seven, eight or more languages. It’s not that hard.

On this side of the pond, we should at least teach kids to talk fluently in two.

Jim Street covers Alpine and Brewster County for the Alpine Avalanche. He can be reached at 432-837-3334, reporter@alpineavalanche.com or 118 N. 5th St.    

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