I had to make do with my immigrant mother's helping me piece out the headlines letter-by-letter in the Forvertz, the Yiddish paper that showed up in the mailbox every week. I can still hear her reading the tearjerkers in the advice column to my grandmother. (Even then I knew they weren't exactly great literature.)
If only I'd been given some Yiddish education, I might now be able to read Sholem Aleichem, the creator of the Tevye stories, as in "Fiddler on the Roof," in the original. Not to mention I.L. Peretz, the brothers Singer, and, well, a whole literature and therefore world. Yiddish may be a small, even diminutive, language, but there are those who love it.
Still, I'm grateful that, once I entered public school, it was conducted in English, including the tests. The monolingual may not believe it, but it seemed perfectly natural to switch from Yiddish at home to English in school and then go on to Hebrew School in the afternoons.
A child's sponge-like mind can do that. Kids in Spanish-speaking homes all over the country are probably changing languages just as naturally today whenever they walk in and out the door.
Rather than water down the tests, let's invest in intensive language training for the kids who are still struggling with English, whether they're Chinese in San Francisco, Cajun in South Louisiana, Portuguese in Boston -- or Hispanic in Arkansas.
Because they're all American, and one can scarcely be American without knowing English, or what passes for it on this side of the Atlantic -- whether the dialect being spoken is Maine Yankee or Arkinsaw Suthuhn.
What's the best approach to take toward kids without much English?
Well, I've been reading about a fifth-grader at the John Tyson Elementary School in Springdale, Ark. His literacy instructor, Therese Thompson, isn't about to wait the estimated two years it's going to take for the ESL establishment to come up with alternatives to the regular tests. She notes that the state's next standardized exams will be given in April. "We've got all of December, January, February and March to get him there," she says.
That's the spirit. What's needed is not non-English tests, or tests that use "simplified" English, but more Therese Thompsons.