Classroom Ban On Spanish Protested

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 29, 2003 6 min read
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When, if ever, is it appropriate for educators to require students to refrain from speaking their native languages?

For a teacher in Arizona recently, the answer was to ban Spanish in her high school classroom because, she reportedly said, the English-only rule made it easier to manage her students.

The issue has come up in a different setting in Nebraska, where a judge ordered a father not to speak “Hispanic” to his daughter during visits with her.

The fierce criticism sparked by each incident underscores just how volatile the topic of language, and how language is used, remains both inside and outside schools in the United States.

Bilingual and multilingual educators say that bans like that of the Arizona teacher are simply unjustified because everyone has a right to speak his or her own language. They observe that many Americans seem to feel uncomfortable— if not fearful—in the presence of people who are speaking a language that is foreign to them.

They also contend that it’s quite common for monolingual teachers to ask students not to speak their native languages in their classrooms.

On the other hand, some teachers argue that they have good reasons to require students to speak only English in the classroom.

“I have always had an English-only rule,” Ignacio Sanchez, an English teacher at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, Calif., wrote in an e-mail response last week to a reporter’s request for opinions on the issue. “This is not a punishment. It is a means for students to more quickly learn English.”

And Sally Wessely, who teaches English as a second language at Centennial High School in Pueblo, Colo., wrote via e-mail that she found that permitting students to speak their own languages in class “led to division and suspicion.”

She added: “It is not socially acceptable to engage in conversations that exclude those around us.”

Hot Topic

The recent incidents brought the debate home in two communities.

Earlier this month, a high school cosmetology teacher at the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa, Ariz., told five girls not to speak Spanish among themselves in her class. The teacher doesn’t speak Spanish.

Administrators at the regional vocational high school backed the teacher. They said that she had a right to do so as a means of classroom management, and that the girls were being disruptive.

But 16-year-old Patricia Otero asserts that she and her friends were simply chatting in Spanish and laughing as other students were permitted to do in English. The Mexican-American girl says the teacher told them it was “rude” for them to speak Spanish because others in the class couldn’t understand them.

An East Valley assistant principal spent five hours explaining the teacher’s English-only rule to the students involved and some of their parents, including Patricia’s mother, Gabriela Otero. The incident was covered by Arizona newspapers and television stations after Patricia Otero spoke publicly about it at a Latino town hall meeting.

In the Nebraska instance, Sarpy County District Judge Ronald E. Reagan required Eloy Amador, a 30-year-old Mexican-American, to stop speaking “Hispanic” and use English when visiting his 5-year-old daughter, who is in the custody of her mother.

Saying that it’s not fair for the child to be put in situations where people are speaking Spanish and she doesn’t understand them, Judge Reagan threatened to restrict Mr. Amador’s visits if he didn’t use English with the girl, according to a transcript of the Sept. 15 hearing.

“It’s difficult enough to learn the English language, you know,” the judge said.

The judge’s ruling prompted Democratic state Sen. Ernie Chambers to file a complaint with the state Committee on Judicial Qualifications. The complaint argued that the judge discriminated against Mr. Amador by prohibiting him from speaking Spanish.

Sen. Chambers also said in the complaint that the judge appeared to be culturally ignorant, since he had referred to Spanish as “Hispanic,” which is not a language. Judge Reagan has since removed himself from the case.

Legal Rights

It’s difficult for most observers of the issue to imagine a return to the days when students in many U.S. schools would routinely be castigated for using their native languages. But Americans continue to disagree on whether it is sometimes appropriate to ask people to stick with English.

“If you go back as far as I do,” said William L. Taylor, a longtime civil rights lawyer based in Washington, “you can remember a time in schools in the Southwest when Mexican-American children were punished for speaking their native language in the school halls and playground.”

That approach is now viewed as discriminatory and abusive, he said.

Today, Mr. Taylor said, a teacher has a legal right to require students to speak English for academic reasons. For instance, when a teacher asks a question in English, the student should answer in English, because it’s part of the academic program, he said.

Mr. Taylor said a teacher wouldn’t have much to stand on legally, however, in requiring students to speak only English as a way to manage the students. Similar arguments have failed in court for employers seeking to prohibit workers from speaking their native languages in the workplace, he said.

Jim J. Boulet Jr., the executive director of English First, a Springfield, Va.-based organization that supports English-only laws and policies in government, has a different take on the matter.

“A teacher may be forced into [making students stick with English] because of civil rights law,” he argued. “You are required to keep your class free from ethnic slurs. If a teacher is unable to monitor that, and a student comes in and says, ‘This is what they are saying about me,’ you have a problem.”

‘No Inglés’

That logic makes sense to school officials in Mesa.

Sally E. Downey, the superintendent of the 2,500-student East Valley Institute of Technology, which is its own school district, says the cosmetology teacher is justified in having an English-only rule in her classroom for safety reasons.

“What if you had a disruption in your classroom that spilled into a fight, and you didn’t know what was happening? That could be a safety issue,” Ms. Downey said. She surmised that the incident at her school received public attention because when it occurred the news media were “hurting for news stories.”

But Patricia Otero, the daughter of a carpenter and a homemaker who are both from Mexico and speak only Spanish, is still fired up about the matter.

“I don’t agree, and I’m going to keep on talking Spanish in the classroom,” she said in fluent English in an interview last week.

Referring to her teacher, who could not be reached for comment, she said: “If she’s not willing to cope with the situation, then she is in the wrong profession. If she is not comfortable because other people are speaking the language, then she should go to school to learn the language.”

School isn’t the only place where Patricia is encountering language rules.

In an interview in which Gabriela Otero supported her daughter’s position, she noted that for years, she’s implemented a language rule of her own. “La regla en mi casa es no inglés,” she said. “The rule in my house is no English.”


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