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(HOST) Commentator Gloria Gonzalez agrees that learning English is an important goal for non-English-speaking immigrants. But in small-town-Vermont, finding language lessons can be a challenge.

(GONZALES) I have a new Mexican friend. I’ll call her Marta to make sure she stays anonymous. She came to Vermont looking for a chance to escape poverty. Elisa, her daughter, is happily adapting to American-style preschool. The rest of the time she spends with mom on the farm, playing outdoors when the weather is good.

Marta and Elisa are a two-person team. Every day, they take care of baby Lina, tidy up the home and get dinner ready for dad’s return from milking the mooers. They like Vermont.

Marta, however, has one complaint. She wishes Elisa’s preschool would help her learn English more quickly. I tell her that foreign language classes for little kids are not readily available in Vermont, even though they’re pretty common in Mexico.

I took my first English classes as a preschooler, exactly Elisa’s age. I spent a few hours a week dancing and singing rounds like “pollito chicken, gallina hen, lapiz pencil, pluma pen.” It was a modest beginning, but eventually I got pretty functional in English.

“Yes,” Marta says. “That’s what I want.” We agree that it’s best for Elisa to learn English sooner rather than later. “What can I do?” she says. “Where can I find her some English lessons? Maybe at your College?”

I tell her, I wish my kids had a chance to learn Spanish just as you want English for Elisa. But I don’t know any place that offers formal language training for little kids around here. I tell her not to worry, though. Kid’s brains are language sponges.

But Marta wants Elisa to learn now. She wants her to do well in school, to have more friends. And for people to accept them. Marta also wants to stop being put in the middle of arguments between people she has not even met. On whether Hispanics learn English later than other immigrant groups. Or whether people should be allowed to sing the national anthem in some languages but not in others. “I want to be treated like a regular person, minding my own business,” she says.

Marta agrees with George Bush and the U.S. Senate on at least one thing: that a Mexican national in the U.S. needs to learn English. Only they have not provided her or her daughter with many chances to learn. What they have offered are some harsh words. And legislation on English as a “national language.” The kind that will get Marta and Elisa blamed for not speaking English any sooner.

I see some striking similarities with the No Child Left Behind legislation. I can’t imagine anyone who would disagree with children doing better in school, or for immigrants to know more rather than less. But I’ll be surprised if the effects of both laws are that more children do well in school, or that immigrants learn English sooner. Instead, we’ll punish them when they don’t. Another case of blame the victim.

There is one word I as a language teacher would like to teach you now: inutil – useless.

For now, Elisa will go on singing “pollito chicken, gallina hen, lapiz pencil, pluma pen…”

Gloria Estela Gonzalez teaches Latin American literature and Spanish at Middlebury College.

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