Politics & Policy

Bad in Any Language

H.R. 4766 needs to be blocked.

H.R. 4766, the “Native American Languages Preservation Act,” is scheduled to be considered by the U.S. House of Representatives under a suspension of the rules as early as today. This expedited procedure is generally reserved for legislation naming federal buildings, honoring champion sports teams, and other such uncontroversial items.

The purpose of the bill is to fund the teaching of Native American languages. The original version of H.R. 4766, introduced by Republican Heather Wilson of New Mexico on February 15, has been somewhat toned down by Education Committee staff for its presentation on the House floor. Unfortunately, the revisions are mostly cosmetic.

If the aim is to learn a language, both the private and the public sector use the proven immersion method. All you hear is the new language. All you speak is the new language. Fluency soon follows. For bilingual advocates, learning English is at best a secondary goal — something made all too clear by H.R. 4766. This disordering of priorities does a great disservice to the students who need to learn English.

Bilingual-education advocates apply the immersion approach to the wrong language. The best way to teach English, they claim, is to have students sit in a classroom hearing and speaking nothing but the non-English language of their ancestors. As a result, “graduates” of bilingual-education programs remain mystified by English.

H.R. 4766 specifically applies the bilingual-education approach to children aged seven or younger. These kids are to be immersed in a Native American language for “an average” of 500 hours per year per student. Five hundred hours is a goodly chunk of the average September through May school year (40 weeks times 30 hours of instruction per week equals 1,200 hours).

For this reason alone, Section 2 of the revised bill is aptly entitled, “Expansion of Program to Ensure the Survival and Continuing Vitality of Native American Languages.” At a time in life when children of Limited English Proficient parents need to hear the most English in order to develop fluency, H.R. 4766 seeks to ensure they will hear far less.

H.R. 4766 utterly fails to mention the word “English.” What it does require is that grant recipients “work toward the goal of all students achieving fluency in a Native American language and academic proficiency in mathematics, reading (or language arts) and science.” Legislative silence of this sort invites suspicion.

Advocates of H.R. 4766 are apparently unaware of how difficult it is to learn to read an unwritten language. Many Native American languages remain unwritten, yet this legislation urges government grants for “the development of Native American language materials, such as books.”

This is not as stupefying as it may appear to be. Bilingual-education advocates deem nothing impossible; a solution can always be found — and funded by taxpayers.

The Carter administration’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the then-new Department of Education ordered an Alaska school district to give Eskimo children bilingual-reading instruction, despite the undisputed fact that no written version of the children’s language existed.

OCR’s solution? The school district was required to pay for the creation of a written language for these children and then teach them to read it. (This stunning exhibition of mindless bureaucracy is recounted in the Fall, 1986 Journal of Law and Education article, “The Social Science Evidence on Bilingual Education,” by Christine H. Rossell and J. Michael Ross.)

The issue of Alaskan native-language instruction leads to another curious aspect of the revised version of H.R. 4766: neither the term “Native American” nor “Native American Languages” is legally defined anywhere amidst seven pages of text devoted to various minutiae (e.g., “Native American language and culture camps”; a “master-apprentice model of learning languages” and “interactive media”).

By contrast, the earlier version of H.R. 4766 was not nearly so coy. It contained specific definitions of both “Native American” (“The term ‘Native American’ means — (A) an Indian; (B) a Native American Pacific Islander, (C) a Native Hawaiian; and (D) an Alaska Native”) as well as “Native American Language” (“The term ‘Native American language’ means a historical, traditional language spoken by Native Americans”).

Both House and Senate Republicans have demonstrated their disinterest in creating still more special treatment for Native Hawaiians, in thanks largely to both National Review and now-House Majority Leader John Boehner. Accordingly, stealth is now necessary. A review of the existing definitions section of current law, referenced on page six of the “sanitized” version of H.R. 4766, finds all the needed terms already in place: “Native Hawaiians” (42 U.S.C. 2992 (c) (3)), “Alaskan Native villages,” and “Native American Pacific Islander.”

Should H.R. 4766 ever be signed into law, Department of Education bureaucrats can simply say that since Congress did not amend these preexisting categories, Congress must have intended to fund native language instruction programs for every single one of them. Earmarks by Senators Stevens (R., Ala.) and Akaka (D., Hawaii) can be relied upon to fill in any gaps.

– Jim Boulet Jr. is Executive Director of English First.

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