I began my schooling in the English language at the age of 11. I was a recent arrival from Mexico and could barely speak a word or two in English. 

There were no special programs then, so because of my age and because I had finished sixth grade in Mexico I was placed in the sixth grade once more. Coping with my classes while learning a complete new language was difficult. 

Luckily, I had done well in learning my basics in my elementary schooling in Mexico and was able to get by as I learned English. By the time the end of that first year swung around I was doing fairly well and moved on into middle school. By no means did I master English that first year. I got by, but it took several more years before I could carry on a fairly fluent conversation. 

A couple of years ago, I read an editorial in the San Antonio Express that brought back many of these memories. The opinion piece, written by Rebecca Callahan, an Assistant Professor at UT, explained how corporate America values bilingualism. Parents of affluent families “line up in the early morning hours to sign up their children for a spot in next fall’s dual-language kindergarten,” she wrote. And, she argued, these parents recognize something that many teachers, principals and policymakers do not – that knowing two languages puts you at an advantage. 

Callaghan added, however, that while everyone seems to agree that speaking two languages is valuable – the rule doesn’t seem to apply to children that arrive in school already speaking a different language. In their case, she said – the emphasis is to learn English… above all else. More often than not at the expense of their native language.

As I finished high school and went on to college and eventually a successful career, people have often told me, “You’re a perfect example, you did it… others can do it.” The problem with that argument is that as I moved on through the public school system, many of my friends did not. Most of them were born on this side of the border, but Spanish was as much their first language as it was mine. I had an advantage though, I had six years of solid education (i.e., mathematics, science, geography, world history and more) in Spanish under my belt. 

Every year I see the test results of our local school districts and those of other surrounding communities. They barely waver and while they show progress in some areas, they often drop in others. I know many of the children in our schools do exceptionally well. I know this is true because many of them move on to colleges and universities and rate with the best of them. But, I also know that many of the children in our schools have problems with the language. This is a fact.

Children in many sectors of our city grow up in a Spanish-only environment. They arrive in school, often into the first grade, with little or no knowledge of English. They go home after school and are surrounded by Spanish – from their friends, their parents, their neighbors, media from south of the border. They speak Spanish as a first language. This is not a political statement on their part, nor is it a refusal to speak English – they simply haven’t been exposed to anything else. This is the reality.

An even harsher reality is that learning concepts in a language that one is only beginning to understand is difficult. But, to be tested in a language that one has trouble fully understanding, and be rated academically based on the results of that test, is not only illogical, it is immoral.

I certainly don’t advocate that children don’t learn English. In order to succeed and be a productive member of society and the labor force, English (oral and written) is a necessity. I support any type of academic program that can develop language and communication skills for all children. It just seems senseless to me to rate the academic level of any child (or person for that matter) based on a test in a language that, in many cases, he or she is just learning and has a limited vocabulary of. 

I recently had opportunity to visit one of the local high schools. In an auto mechanics class I saw several young students checking the electrical system of a car. I asked them what they were doing and, in all honesty, they had a problem putting into words what they were doing. Yet, I assure you these kids were not dumb, they knew very well what they were doing – they simply had limited language skills. Sadly, I sense they’ll have a hard time with the STAAR test.

I wonder how many of us would rate as academically acceptable if we were tested in German or Russian.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column by Miguel Conchas first appeared in the Laredo Morning Times and on the Laredo Chamber of Commerce president’s Linked-In page. It appears in the Rio Grande Guardian with the author’s permission.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Miguel Conchas at the offices of the Laredo Chamber of Commerce.