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English for Immigrants

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

President Obama invoked immigrant assimilation this week in a speech in El Paso, Texas, praising the notion embodied in the motto E pluribus unum: out of many, one. But it wasn't all that long ago when many liberals eschewed the idea of America as having one language, one culture, and one people. Ironically, it has taken an anti-immigrant backlash to awaken at least some liberals to the dangers of multiculturalism, which they pushed aggressively for decades.

It was liberals -- not conservatives -- who originally claimed that today's immigrants couldn't assimilate, or, in their view, shouldn't even try. Liberals insisted that Hispanic kids, even those who were born here, be taught in Spanish and learn to revere their ancestral culture rather than to take pride in being Americans. The bilingual, multicultural approach became deeply imbedded in the public school curriculum, thanks to the efforts mostly of white liberals, with help from some college-educated, fully assimilated Hispanic activists.

The consequences were disastrous, especially for Hispanic children consigned to a second-class education in Spanish, which would not lead to college or economic success. It also caused resentment among those who rightly felt that other immigrants had willingly adopted English and that Hispanics should as well. But there were a few valiant voices arguing against bilingual and multicultural education, and none was more effective than Dr. Rosalie Pedalino Porter.

Porter's memoir, "American Immigrant: My Life in Three Languages" (Transaction Publishers) chronicles her struggle to end programs that segregated Hispanic students by language and ethnicity. Porter came to America from Italy as a child of 5, speaking not a word of English. She arrived when the United States was in the middle of the Great Depression, but her parents had relatives living in New Jersey who helped them find jobs.

Even the poverty of the Depression era was nothing compared to the bleak life they left behind in Italy. Like many immigrants of that era, Porter found school a welcome departure from the grinding duties of caring for younger siblings, preparing meals, and cleaning house that fell on the oldest child. She excelled in school and decided to devote her life to education.

Eventually, Porter would earn a Ph.D. in education and become director of a bilingual education programs in the Newton, Mass., public schools. It was her experience in the classroom that helped change her mind about what works -- and what doesn't -- when it comes to teaching new immigrants to speak English.

Porter quickly found that teaching youngsters in their native language actually slowed down their academic progress and eventually abandoned the approach. When she became a school administrator, she put her experience to action and transformed the school system's bilingual program, which drew the ire of state officials. She became a thorn in the side of bilingual educators around the country. At conferences, she spoke up whenever bilingual advocates made the ridiculous claim that the best way to learn English was to make sure students spent most of their day being taught in Spanish.

In 1990, Porter's first book, "Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education," became the authoritative text on the subject. Since then, she has served as an expert witness in countless court battles on bilingual education, and the U.S. Supreme Court cited her work in its decision on Flores v. Arizona, which upheld English immersion as an acceptable method to teach non-English speakers.

She also became an activist, assisting immigrant parents in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts to get rid of failing bilingual programs in favor of more effective English immersion programs, all of which she details in her memoir.

It's no surprise that an immigrant would be the perfect foil for bilingual educators. Who better to understand that English is the gateway to opportunity in America? President Obama was singing the praises of English and assimilation for America's newcomers in Texas this week. But Rosalie Porter has been the choir leader on the subject for years.

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