The tone of the fifth paragraph of the “Aria” chapter of Richard Rodriguez’s book Hunger of Memory is intriguing. In this paragraph, Rodriguez first raises explicitly the issue of bilingual education.
The paragraph begins, for instance, with the following sentence:
Many years later there is something called bilingual education – a scheme proposed in the late 1960s by Hispanic-American social activists, later endorsed by a congressional vote.
The tone of this sentence might be described either as merely neutral or as slightly negative. The word “scheme,” for instance, can mean (especially in British English) simply a proposal. In American English, however, it often suggests a trick. At this point, it is difficult to know exactly what tone Rodriguez is employing. The tone of his later reference to “Hispanic-American activists” is similarly difficult to interpret. The word “activists” might sound negative to some people, although it might seem simply objective to others. If Rodriguez had used “radicals” or “extremists,” the tone would seem obviously much more negative.
Rodriguez next reports, apparently dispassionately, the main purpose of the program. This report, however, is immediately followed by a parenthetical sentence whose tone sound suspicious in several senses: “(Such is the goal its supporters announce.)” How should this comment be interpreted? Is it suggesting that there is some difference between the announced goal of the supports and their real goals? Or is it simply and literally parenthetical – an after-thought to indicate that the preceding sentence was merely a paraphrase of others’ ideas? Here again, the tone of the phrasing is difficult to pin down precisely.
In the very next sentence, however, Rodriguez’s opposition to bilingual education seems quite explicit:
I hear them and am forced to say no: It is not possible for a child – any child – ever to use his family’s language in school.
This is an extremely strong and emphatic statement, especially in the section that follows the colon. Rodriguez, in that part of the sentence, can sound like an inflexible absolutist, or he can sound like a man who knows from his own experience that bilingual education cannot work. Notice that in the first part of the sentence (the sentence that precedes the colon) he says that he is “forced to say no” (emphasis added). Such phrasing suggests that he feels morally and ethically compelled to speak out against a proposal that may sound attractive but that he knows will fail. To stay silent (Rodriguez seems to imply) would be irresponsible. Doing so would mean standing by and watching while money was wasted and young lives were damaged. The final sentence of the paragraph is once more quite emphatic:
Not to understand this is to misunderstand the public uses of schooling and to trivialize the nature of intimate life – the family’s “language.”
Once again, here, the second half of the sentence is especially strongly phrased: it is one thing to “misunderstand” something (anyone can make an honest mistake); it is altogether something different and worse to “trivialize” something. This world implies a cheapening of something, a failure to give something the serious consideration it deserves.
In short, the tone of the first half of this paragraph is arguably neutral and objective, but the tone of the second half is quite impassioned.