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This speech delivered Saturday, Aug, 15, 2009 at the annual Bilingual, Biliterate, Bicultural Conference hosted by the College of Education and attended by over 550 local and area educators.

For additional information on the Conference, visit here.


El tema de nuestro tiempo:  The Time Is Now for Dual Language
August 15, 2009


In 1923, the great Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, troubled by what he saw as a crisis in European culture, published what would become one of his most influential works:  El tema de nuestro tiempo, The theme of our time.  Ortega’s point is not to reveal the one single theme of his own era.  Our experience, Ortega tells us, is “generacional,” generational, and the theme of a time is the course or pathway a generation sets for itself.  “Cada generación tiene su vocación histórica.” Each generation has its historic vocation, its calling. For example, a generation may find itself living in conservative times, “épocas acumulativas,” or periods of expansive thought and action, “épocas polémicas,” “épocas críticas.”   To lay hold of the theme for one’s times, to understand the moment during which one lives and works, becomes for each of us the awakening required for effective action.

If asked, what would we offer as the theme of our time?  What period are we living through?  What special work are we called, now, to do? We may pursue solutions to many challenges—health care, environmental decay, shortage of water, a failing economy. But are these, for us in Laredo today, “el tema de nuestro tiempo?”   I think not. What issue or question in Laredo permeates everything we do and everything we dream, even as it defines who we are?

Our generational, historical, social, political, and cultural theme, rooted in our history and lighting the way toward a better tomorrow, is language.  How do we use it and how do we teach it? For us, in Laredo, in Texas, in the United States, the subject of language touches all the learning outcomes we project and all the dreams we imagine for ourselves and for the generations which will follow us.  We know the goal: we want our students to compete effectively with young people everywhere. We want our graduates to assume their rightful role in global society. The enormous strides we have seen in thinking about education—what to teach and how to teach it— equip us, I am confident, with the knowledge we need to help students become part of the American dream writ global.  But on the matter of language—what to teach and how to teach it— we are today paralyzed in a position I know all of you find unacceptable, frustrating, and wasteful.

First, let’s be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. It was at this very Conference, several years ago, that we all heard Dr. Virginia Collier and Dr. Wayne Thomas and saw what their extensive research has uncovered.  What we are still groping for is not an answer or an approach to the question of language…  They gave us that. Their message could not have been more clear: Children in a properly executed dual language program outperform their monolingual peers.

What we still lack is the resolve, as a community, to take the decisive and obvious steps.  Professional responsibility for showing the way rests first with the College, the University , and our school districts.  But we have spoken. In numerous meetings over the last two years, all of us agree as to which course of action is best for us.  We now need our community—Laredo and our neighboring cities, to join us.  We must recognize the communal responsibility to act because Laredo, Webb County, and those cities and counties which border ours, are uniquely positioned to benefit more than any other by our right actions on the matter of language. If we fail to act, we will suffer the bitter regret of lost opportunity.

At this point, we confront two obvious questions.  First, how are we doing with our mandate to empower our students for global competition?  Second, what has language acquisition and teaching to do with the dream of participation in the international enterprise?  Since we live, I am thankful to note, in a data-driven age, the answers and our responses should be informed by the numbers. First, how are we doing?  In 2003, 4.9% of students taking the SAT/ACT in one district, and 7.7% in another, achieved a score nationally recognized as “college ready.”  In 2007, 9.3% of students in one district, 7.6% in another, scored college ready.  In 2003, 27.2% of all Texas children scored college ready; in 2007, that number stood at 27%. The point is clear; this is not merely a Laredo problem. Neither we in Laredo nor we in Texas are where we wish to be.  The answer to the second question, regarding language training and student success, I will address in these next few minutes.

Laredo’s history reveals how it is that we along the border gain the most from right-thinking about language, and lose the most by bungling this issue.  On May 14, 2005, Laredo, Texas celebrated its 250th anniversary, making this city one of the oldest in the United States.  Because of its age and its history, our town has been slow to acquire the look of Middle America.  Laredo’s population, now approaching 250,000, is 94% Hispanic, located in what is often described as the most heavily Hispanic county in the nation. Unlike many sister cities on the Texas or California border with Mexico, the numbers also determine the dominant, even preferred, culture. 

Spanish continues as the language spoken at home by an astonishing 91% of the residents of our county. Unlike many other Texas cities, we in Laredo have no sense that “Hispanic” is somehow a lesser position, that to speak Spanish renders us somehow less American.  Economic and political power, in the past and today, resides in Hispanic hands, and our cultural landscape is a tranquil one. There is no local chapter of the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce.  Why should there be?  No one feels left out or passed over or disenfranchised because of a Hispanic heritage. We proudly consider ourselves bilingual, bicultural, binational, the only Spanish colonial city today fully American, yet self-consciously enjoying its Hispanic face.

Recent disquietude in our Congress and across our nation concerning illegal immigration often focuses on the fear that a Hispanic presence means México and its culture is moving north. Again, this is not true in Laredo. When asked what makes us most proud of our city, Laredoans often reply that, in this place, ethnic, cultural, and religious origins blend in a harmonious and productive whole. Cross-cultural marriages create family relationships that blur the barriers of ethnicity and religion, forging a protean culture of easy tolerance within this community. At the same time, and unlike much of Mexican popular culture, Laredo has always taken great pride in its Spanish roots.

The impact of our unique history upon language makes Laredo a fascinating laboratory for those who pursue language study. Nuevo Santander, the Spanish name for our region, was an isolated colony, and that isolation has allowed us to preserve, like bees in amber, many expressions and verb conjugations wrongly thought to be a border aberration, or, as we say, pochoTruje or truxo, for traje and trajo are in fact the language of Cervantes, still the 18th-century Spanish of Laredo’s founders. Vide, for lo vi , and haiga, a jumble of haga and hay, also come to us from our Castilian heritage. Spaniards refer to la tapia, a garden wall; we say la barda, the same word Don Quijote uses.

In addition to vocabulary and verb forms from Spanish of another era, our blended culture has produced a blended language, a Spanish-English argot uniquely our own. It is not the often-mentioned “Spanglish” that one hears in Laredo, but improvised words, loaned or sculpted, trimmed or stretched, moved from one language to the other, in patterns that predictably recur. We drive trocas and feel trileados, English pressed so effortlessly into Spanish that we move between languages without fully realizing what we are doing.  Or we jump back and forth to have fun with language.  My own children, not speaking English until kindergarten, still like to talk about the rain forming “charcs,” about cars colliding to produce a “choke,” or passing Chi-who-a--who-a Street.

While it is great fun to patch and parse simultaneously in two languages, our game has one unhappy consequence: young people who have grown up in Laredo are often slow to develop an ear to distinguish accepted idiomatic constructions in either language. It is not that we are illiterate in two languages, as pessimists have sometimes said. It is that we have created a third tongue, and therefore are not as certain of ourselves when the occasion requires only English or only Spanish.

Recently, we have been exploring, together with the City and County, the possibility that  Laredo might acquire National Public Radio. Those talks have laid bare, at least for me, linguistic realities I had not considered.  In that most universal of all media, radio,  Laredo today has no station which connects us, as NPR would, to our national dialogue.  Children cannot tune into the rich stream of standard English available through public radio.   Nor is it  possible in Laredo to teach English by the method known elsewhere as “immersion.”  Here, the water will always swirl with currents both English and Spanish.  We have seen this as a problem; it is in fact the most potent weapon for stellar performance, awaiting proper deployment.

As is so often the case, Senator Judith Zaffirini articulates with striking clarity the challenge.  For elementary school children, she points out, bilingual education is a remedial effort; for high school students, it is a path for the gifted and talented.  Her description, I think we all know, is sadly accurate.  Fortunately, we know exactly how to fix this, how to send all our children into the world fully fluent and comfortably speaking, reading and writing both English and Spanish. 

We must, as quickly as possible, implement a dual language program in every elementary school in Laredo.  The research is clear.  Children fortunate enough to finish a well-executed dual language experience outperform their monolingual contemporaries.  My beloved mentor, Professor Edmund L. King from Princeton, a native of Austin and trained at UT, used to observe that “my students will learn what I teach them.”  If we teach our children to be truly bilingual, they, like children all over this globe, will meet our expectations. The responsibility is ours.

On July 29, our Dean of Student Success, Dr. Minita Ramírez, and I attended a presentation at the Coordinating Board in Austin.  The speaker was Professor Patricia Gándara, Professor of Education at the University of California at Los Angeles.  Her topic was not new: How might Texas do a better job of educating what by 2015 will be its large, Hispanic majority?   At several points in her presentation, she urged us to speak publicly and loudly of our needs.  Ask our elected officials to launch a campaign for education, she suggested.  This we must do for language learning in Laredo.  And we cannot wait. 

Each year we roll forward with things as they are—a few elementary schools following the dual language course—is a year lost for most of our students. Remember: they only go through each of their school and college years once.  We see freshmen or sophomores or third-graders or middle schoolers every year. “I’ll remember to do this right with the next class,” I recall telling myself on countless occasions.  Dual language curricula provide the undisputed model for improvement, but today, August 15, 2009, it remains an unfulfilled promise to the future. We cannot go back and give those students who graduated from high school last May the dual language tool that could have made them all truly bilingual.

Our calling as teachers and scholars and students in South Texas is clearly summarized in the mission statement of the University: to “prepare students for leadership roles in their chosen profession in a culturally diverse state, national, and global society.” That vision for education, to prepare for a diverse future is, I would argue, more easily reached in Laredo than in any other Texas locale. Here the English and Spanish empires met and, in our city, commingled their institutions, practices, languages. But we must harness for our benefit the rich research in language acquisition. We must form, in a marriage without divorce, a curricular bond between what we know about language and how we plan what we teach children.

I end these remarks recognizing the three formidable challenges that have stood in our way, and I share your chagrin that we continue to struggle with them.  First, parents don’t understand, and tell trustees they don’t want a program that includes Spanish. This is like saying one doesn’t want a vaccine for polio, or one is hesitant about co-education. Surely we can answer that one.  Second, faculty don’t unanimously embrace a dual language model. Again, we should be able to address that; it is our profession that has laid out this path for us all.  Finally, I am told that we have a shortage of teachers able to deliver the curriculum in strong and standard Spanish. And again, shame on us.  If we are committed to this plan, I am confident that we can find and produce the teachers.

One final number should both surprise and stir us to act: 13% of the citizens of Webb County are under the age of five years.  Only one other county in the United States has such a large percentage of the very young. If we get this right, if we teach what they need, if we equip our children to be truly bilingual, we will have turned who we are to the best possible advantage. 

If we fail, if we lurch forward with bilingual education a remedial plan for elementary schools, a gifted and talented opportunity for high schools, those who follow us will repeat the same question many of you today ask: When will we do what both science and experience tell us is right?

Ray M. Keck III
Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University