Fox News (who else?) has an “expose” on a California program that will teach AP Spanish to children, most of whom speak Spanish in the home.

The program — the only one of its kind in California — has outraged some critics who say they are concerned that the AP course wastes public resources – including taxpayer dollars – to teach native Spanish speakers how to speak their native language in an American public school.

The complaints of this being a waste of money may have some truth in the matter: the bureaucrat in charge of the program is quoted as describing it as a self esteem program.

“Our goal is basically to provide kids with an opportunity to excel and to feel really satisfied about doing the higher level work,” Lemon Grove School District Superintendent Ernie Anastos told FOXNews.com.

And, of course, the “English First” types are saying: teach them to speak English first.

All of this ignores a lot of stuff.

First of all,  if one is to be successful in the US, (or in a lot of other places) you need to be fluent in English.

To do this, you need to make speaking English a priority.

That means immersion in English only classes for the younger students.

In Africa, because of the many dialects, children were taught in English in our local school.

How?

We talked very slowly, explained my friend, a local teacher. And we explained what the words meant if they got confused. By third grade, they could read their textbooks.

Of course, when I had to ask about medical problems, even our teachers would get confused because they didn’t know the specialized vocabulary of medicine, so I would have a local nurse to repeat what I told them in English.

(This “vocabulary” problem is why trained translators are so important in hospitals, instead of merely tapping the janitor or cook to translate).

For immigrants, or Native Americans who didn’t speak English, often adults tell horror stories of being forbidden to speak their native languages in school. Yet most of those telling me these stories were fluent in English and indeed college educated, so it must have worked.

But I can see in my own sons that immersion has problems, at least for older children.

My younger adopted son was immersed, and did well. But he was tutored for the first year by an ESL (English second language) teacher. After that, he was fluent in spoken English, and did well despite needing tutoring for dyslexia.

My older son arrived at Junior High age, so was allowed to attend half his classes taught in Spanish. He learned nothing in the classes, probably because many of the “Junior High School” boys were 18 or older and the classroom was chaotic, with a fearful teacher who really didn’t demand that the kids learn.

Oh, my son did learn–to curse and speak Mexican slang (he spoke the purer Castillian that is prevalent in Colombia).

So I placed him in a regular Junior High School, where he did better, slowly learning English, although he had to repeat two of his six classes the next year…but emotionally he became depressed from the stress.

So as a mother, I have no easy answers.

But let’s look at the “teaching Spanish” program.

AP is advanced placement, which means taking college level courses in high school.

So why teach advanced Spanish to Spanish speakers?

Because they don’t speak Spanish correctly. My son, whose Colombian Spanish was impeccable, often complained about the dialect spoken in his classrooms.

Remember “My Fair Lady”? Her English limited her ability to find work. Similarly, what business will hire someone for a high level job who speaks Spanish (or more probably “Spanglish”) poorly?

And then there is the problem of vocabulary: just like English speakers often learn new words, so too children whose parents come from small Mexican villages need to learn new words.

Finally, remember three things:

1. Not everyone with a Spanish name speaks Spanish.

2. Not everyone with a Spanish Name is Mexican.

3. Not all Mexcian speakers of Spanish speak the same dialect.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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