Dual Language SchoolsGrass Roots and Dual Language Immersion: Myth or Reality?

Author Photo: Dr. Bill Rivers

By: Dr. Bill Rivers

Executive Director of Joint National Committee for Languages

Last month, I promised to talk about grass-roots support for Dual Language Immersion. That's a dangerous promise for me to give, and for you to believe: almost nothing signifies cultural identity and belonging more than language, and the support for Dual Language runs into identity at full tilt.

If I tell you that my father's ancestors spoke French, and that on occasion I heard my Grampa mutter something odd along the lines of "Calice de …!" when he caught me rummaging through his chest of machine tools, you might not bat an eye, unless you're also from the stream of Québécois immigrants of the late 19th Century. Looking at me and my last name, you'd have no idea that family stories of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-French (in New England, this meant Québécois) sentiment were part of the narrative the old-timers bored us with. After all, weren't my brother, sister, cousins, and I all Americans, no matter what crazy stories my parents and grandparents told us?

It took me a long time to appreciate the stories my elders told about their origins, and for longer still I've tried to put them into the context of a country where more than 65 million citizens and residents go home and speak something other than English, where tens of millions of parents worry that their children won't acquire the keys to full participation in the economic and civic life of our country – that is, that their kids might not master English – and where those parents worry that the richness of their heritage, and the complicated and often tragic ties to the past, won't pass on to the next generation. That's at the root (sorry) of grass roots support – who are we, who do we want our kids to be? Who else wants in on what we have? Whose money and whose dual language programs are they anyhow?

We live this at home – my children have Armenian, Irish, Syrian, Québécois, and Kanien'keha forbears. Some of these cultures and languages are closer in time – grandparents and cousins overseas speaking Armenian or French or Irish – and some farther back.

So, and bear with me here – the Irish part of me favors elliptical narratives – we come to the questions at hand. Why do parents want dual language? The short answer is that we all want better for our kids, and biliteracy and bilingualism are indisputably formidable gifts to them. But what about those families whose ties to the past are much more tenuous? Whose language has been English for a very long time? Who haven't faced prejudice because of skin color, hair, accent, religion, or origin? What right do they have to horn in on Dual Language? What do they owe? Questions for next month, as we think through what grass roots support means.