Saturday, November 9, 2013

Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Education


"Aria" by Richard Rodriguez tells a bittersweet story of a boy caught between two worlds. Ricardo, is one of a handful of Latino students attending a Catholic school in California. While at school as a young child, Ricardo is hesitant to speak or contribute to the classroom community. He feels as though he doesn't have a voice, he "couldn't believe that the English language was (his) to use." Rodriguez writes about how as a child he felt that there were two types of language, a public language and a private language. English was the language he was supposed to use in public, a language he disliked, saying that it sounded harsh and rough. Spanish was the warm, tender language he used in private, in the presence of family. It was a language he loved so much that he would run home after school to the safety of this warm environment, a place where he could really be himself and be comfortable.

Rodriguez writes about the ways in which this dual world perspective was harming him and holding him back, without him even realizing it at the time. At school he refused to answer questions, he was seen as a slow learner, timid and shy. His teachers were concerned about his lack of progress. But all of this changes with a specific turning point, a point when a "clash of two worlds" turns life as he knows it upside down. A point where Ricardo really becomes Richard. With a quick home visit from a couple of well-intentioned nuns, Ricardo's family is changed forever. The two visiting nuns ask Ricardo's parents if they could practice speaking English at home. This public language now becomes a private language as well, and "in an instant, they (Ricardo's parents) agreed to give up the language that had revealed and accentuated the family's closeness."

As a new version of this family is born, Richard feels tremendous sadness and despair. He becomes angry and cannot understand his parent's willingness to leave a piece of themselves behind. As time goes on though, Richard accepts this new fate and decides that he must really, for the first time, learn classroom English. Weeks and months after his family undergoes this metamorphosis, Richard "becomes" an American citizen both inside and out. He is begrudgingly, yet fully assimilated.

Rodriguez's voice throughout this memoir is somber, but also positive. As an adult he is able to reflect on the sadness and struggles of his "golden age" of youth and actually argues that the difficult transformation he was forced to undergo was worthwhile, a testament to assimilation. His writing reminded me a lot of Lisa Delpit's metaphor of a "picnic" vs. a "banquet," where native language is seen as good and fulfilling, but also meant for a specific time and place. Public language is meant to be used in and is necessary in formal situations.  I think Delpit would be less than thrilled with the complete transformation Rodriguez's family underwent, and I think I'd agree. I don't believe that the nuns in the story were asking the family to give up their native tongue, but were simply asking Richard's parents to "practice" using English at home. Richard's parents took this to the extreme and really felt it necessary to give up their language for their "children's well-being." Their reaction reminded me of  Booker T. Washington during the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War. He was an African American who was widely criticized and scorned for telling other African Americans to "cast down (their) buckets where they (were)," basically saying "be happy for what you've got" (despite the fact that Blacks after the Civil War were just as worse of as they were prior to the war). Don't fight back. You've already been given enough. A sort of give in and give up attitude.

So what about today?


So how does this look today? What is the right answer? Is bilingual education the best way to prepare students for a successful future in America? What if Rodriguez was never forced to learn English? There are a lot of what if's surrounding this issue, and the data is interesting to look at. According to a recent Gallup poll, most Blacks and Hispanics believe that bilingual education is best, whereas only slightly more than half of whites favor bilingual education. The questions you really need to ask yourself though, is who has the most power here? Who has the most cultural capital to begin with? 

I really feel that Lisa Delpit is an appropriate scholar to turn to here. I think that children should be taught the "rules and codes" of power. They should know that their native tongue is beautiful and should be celebrated, something Rodriguez's family failed to do. However, teachers and schools that do not prepare students for such a harsh world are really doing their kids a disservice. It is nice and warm and comfortable in schools where 90% of students are Latino and/or speak Spanish. Any kind, caring, open-minded individual would say that the best way to teach kids is through the use of a language they already know. The tough reality is that when students exit that warm, caring environment, they will find a very cold world.

Additionally, much of the research points to bilingual education being ineffective and often inadequately implemented. There are some schools that have managed to implement successful bilingual programs, but most are ill-equiped and underfunded and therefore unable to provide a successful bilingual education. Christine Rossell wrote this insightful and revealing article, The Near End of Bilingual Education. In her research she interviewed teachers from various school districts in California. She found that overall, most teachers found bilingual programs to be unsuccessful. She states:

"In the fall of 2001, I asked several former bilingual-education teachers who were now teaching in sheltered English-immersion classrooms whether they would ever go back to bilingual education. Not a single teacher said yes. All preferred sheltered English immersion, even though they thought it was harder work for them as teachers. A recurring theme was that 'bilingual education was a good theory, but in practice it just didn’t work very well.”

Rodriguez did not enjoy having to learn English. He did not enjoy being transformed. But he recognizes the fact that it was a necessary evil. If he hadn't learned English when he did, his life would look very different today.


  1. Hi Brittany! I agree that Rodriguez was retrospectively grateful as an adult for having been "assimilated" into American culture. I was so taken aback by the well-intentioned nuns that I couldn't help but feel extreme anger and sadness when reading this article. Like you, I agree that there should be a less harsh way for ELLs to learn the language without letting go their own cultures and languages. I agree that bilingual education is not the route either... I think that classroom immersion into the language is a good thing (it worked for me!), but that teachers of ELLs need much more training. I think it's also important that families of ELLs have good liaisons who are able to communicate in their own languages so that situations like Richard's can be averted in the future.

  2. Brittany, I totally agree with you about providing students the tools to succeed within the culture of power...and I really struggle with not preparing students for the real world when they leave our classrooms, so where is the balance between preparing students for their future and making them feel like their individuality is celebrated. I know this is really hard because I do not speak another language fluently, and as a result can't even communicate effectively with some parents who do not speak English. How could we tailor learning to each individual language learner?