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From the archives:
"What Global Language?" (November 2000)
English isn't managing to sweep all else before it—and if it ever does become the universal language, many of those who speak it won't understand one another. By Barbara Wallraff
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "Immigration, The Perpetual Controversy" (April 1996)
A collection of articles from the beginning of the century and from the 1990s shows that immigration—and how to deal with it—has long been an American preoccupation.
The Battle Over Bilingual Education
December 11, 2002
ast month, voters in Massachusetts and Colorado faced ballot measures to replace three-year transitional bilingual education with one-year English immersion programs. Passed in Massachusetts and defeated in Colorado, these proposals came on the heels of the approval of similar initiatives in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000; all were launched by a movement called English for the Children, which is led by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. With English for the Children campaigns now planned for other states such as Oregon, Illinois, and New York, the bilingual-education question promises to remain relevant and contentious for some time to come. A selection of articles from The Atlantic's archive offers a variety of perspectives on this hotly contested issue.
Bilingual-education programs have existed in the United States since the
late eighteenth century, when European immigrant children were instructed in
their native languages. Ohio adopted bilingual-education legislation in
1839, and Louisiana followed suit eight years later; by the mid nineteenth
century, classes in various states were being conducted in such languages as German, French, Dutch, Swedish, and Greek. During World War I, German-language schools were dissolved amidst questions of loyalty, and popular assimilationist rhetoric quickly led to the disappearance of other remaining bilingual-education programs.
As the civil-rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, Latino activists
called for legislation to address the educational needs of Spanish-speaking
children. In January 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Bilingual
Education Act, which incorporated native-language instruction into the
curriculum. Eight years later, in a lawsuit charging that such instruction had not been implemented into schools, the Supreme Court ruled for Kenny Lau, an eight-year-old Chinese-American from San Francisco who was granted equal protection under the law because, as his case presented, his unfamiliarity with the English language denied him an adequate education. This ruling spawned federal regulations and state laws that compelled public school systems to establish transitional bilingual-education programs. The specific rules varied from state to state, but generally, where there was a certain number of students from one language group at a particular grade level, school districts were required to provide native-language instruction.
Since the Lau ruling the issue of bilingual education has been fiercely disputed. Advocates of bilingual education believe their method develops native-language literacy skills that facilitate students' eventual switch to English while at the same time allowing them to keep up with the standard curriculum. Opponents argue that bilingual education segregates non-English-speaking students and impedes their English-language acquisition, ultimately limiting their opportunities for success.
In November 1983, James Fallows evaluated the bilingual-education question in "Immigration: How It's Affecting Us." In the article, which examined the consequences of the 1965 repeal of the national origins quota system, Fallows detailed the "change in the mix"—the new influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia that resulted from the quota's repeal. Noting that "more than half the people who now come to the United States speak Spanish," he focused on the Latino population in his discussion of language.
Fallows contested the conventional wisdom that "Spanish-speakers are asking
for treatment different from that which has been accorded to everybody else"
and chronicled "the historical parallel closest to today's concentration of
Spanish-speaking immigrants"—the German immigration of the nineteenth
century. He described nineteenth-century German-American efforts to retain their native language through German-English public schools, and he countered the popular myth that "in the old days immigrants switched quickly and enthusiastically to English" by explaining how turn-of-the-century politics altered our perceptions of nineteenth-century linguistic history.
As an endless stream of New Immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe, the
United States was awash in theories about the threats the newcomers posed to American economic, sanitary, and racial standards, and the "100 percent Americanism" movement arose. By the late 1880s, school districts in the Midwest had already begun reversing their early encouragement of bilingual education. Competence in English was made a requirement for naturalized citizens in 1906. Pro-English-language leagues sprang up to help initiate the New Immigrants. California's Commission on Immigration and Housing, for example, endorsed a campaign of "Americanization propaganda" in light of "the necessity for all to learn English—the language of America." With the coming of World War I, all German-language activities were suddenly cast in a different light. Eventually as a result, Americans came to believe that previous immigrants had speedily switched to English, and to view the Hispanics' attachment to Spanish as a troubling aberration.
In comparing the linguistic assimilation of Latinos in the 1980s to that of second-wave European immigrants at the turn of the century, Fallows took into account their differing circumstances. He identified the "most important difference" as the proximity of Latino immigrants' native countries, which creates a border culture in which it is socially and commercially prudent to be bilingual. Many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the 1980s, Fallows explained, maintained a "classic sojourner outlook"—a dream of returning to their native villages and relatively little interest in adaptation to their host country. By contrast, the break between second-wave European immigrants and their native countries was more complete and therefore produced greater pressure for them to adapt. Fallows also suggested that during the twentieth century the "melting pot" ideal had been largely replaced by multiculturalism, and that assimilation campaigns no longer had a comfortable place in public discourse.
Fallows admitted to having been initially skeptical of bilingual education, as he had the impression that it impeded students' progress. He explained that upon investigating the subject, he found that there was in fact "little connection" between the political debate over the issue and its practice in schools.
To begin with, one central fact about bilingual education goes largely unreported. It is a temporary program. The time a typical student stays in the program varies from place to place—often two years in Miami, three years in Los Angeles—but when that time has passed, the student will normally leave. Why, then, do bilingual programs run through high school? Those classes are usually for students who are new to the district—usually because their parents are new to the country.
Debate over bilingual education is "inflammatory," Fallows decided, because
the points of contention are both ideological and methodological, as people are drawn to the issue "for political as well as educational reasons." For many proponents of the program in Texas and the Southwest, bilingual education symbolizes a historic claim for Spanish, and for some activists, it
represents Latino "cultural pride and political power." In Fallows's view, however, the emphasis on ideological questions surrounding bilingual education is counterproductive.
There is another fact about bilingual education, more difficult to prove but impressive to me, a hostile observer. Most of the children I saw were unmistakably learning to speak English.... Therefore, I started to wonder what it is about bilingual education that has made it the focus of such bitter disagreement.
Is this not a question for factual resolution rather than for battles about linguistic and ethnic pride? Perhaps one approach will succeed for certain students in certain situations and the other will be best for others. The choice between bilingual programs and intensive-English courses, then, should be a choice between methods, not ideologies. The wars over bilingual education have had a bitter, symbolic quality. Each side has invested the issue with a meaning the other can barely comprehend. To most Mexican-American parents and children, bilingual education is merely a way of learning English; to Hispanic activists, it is a symbol that they are at last taking their place in the sun. But to many other Americans, it sounds like a threat not to assimilate.
Fallows did not find the immigration situation ominous, as some at the time were suggesting it was. He clarified the popular misconception that new
immigrants, particularly Latinos, were resisting assimilation—statistically demonstrating that among Latinos, younger people were more likely to speak English than their parents and grandparents were—and held that "all the evidence" indicated that the immigrant population was indeed "moving down the path toward assimilation." Fallows concluded that "Spanish will be a living language in the United States longer than any other alternative to English," but maintained that "the movement toward English is inescapable."
Fourteen years after Fallows predicted a shift toward English, and a month before California became the first state to approve English immersion over bilingual education, Rosalie Pedalino Porter, the director of the Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development, wrote "The Case Against Bilingual Education" (May 1998), in which she declared that "bilingual education has had a sufficient trial period to be pronounced a failure." Porter called bilingual education "the most controversial arena in public education," and though she acknowledged its benefits—an increased involvement of immigrant parents in educational issues and a greater general understanding of and respect for non-English-speaking children and their families—she worried that it did more harm than good.
Has it produced the desired results in the classroom? The accumulated research of the past thirty years reveals almost no justification for teaching children in their native languages to help them learn either English or other subjects—and these are the chief objectives of all legislation and judicial decisions in this field. Self-esteem is not higher among limited-English students who are taught in their native languages, and stress is not higher among children who are introduced to English from the first day of school—though self-esteem and stress are the factors most often cited by advocates of bilingual teaching.
Porter rebutted various justifications for bilingual education, including the "theory of incompatibilities," which holds that "Mexican-American children in the United States are so different from 'majority' children that they must be given bilingual and bicultural instruction in order to achieve academic success." Porter contended that such theories actually work against the goals of bilingual education, which are "English-language acquisition and academic achievement in mainstream classrooms." She wrote that though bilingual education had been initiated with the "best of humanitarian intentions," it had become "terribly wrongheaded."
In simplest terms, bilingual education is a special effort to help immigrant children learn English so that they can do regular schoolwork with their English-speaking classmates and receive an equal educational opportunity. But what it is in the letter and the spirit of the law is not what it has become in practice. Some experts decided early on that children should be taught for a time in their native languages, so that they would continue to learn other subjects while learning English. It was expected that the transition would take a child three years.
Porter presented survey data showing that Latino parents of school-age children favor learning English as the "first order of business" for their children and that a large majority of immigrant parents consider "learning English and having other subjects taught in English to be of much greater importance than receiving instruction in the native language or about the native culture." In September 1995, Porter pointed out, a class action lawsuit in Brooklyn charged that non-English-speaking children were not receiving adequate instruction in English, and in September 1996, Mexican-American parents in Los Angeles organized a school boycott to demand that their children be placed in English-language classes. Unz's English for the Children movement, poised for its first legislative victory at the time Porter was writing her article, had garnered support from Latino opponents of bilingual education. Porter argued that such initiatives, despite accusations of immigrant discrimination, actually promote equal opportunity for language minorities.
From this untried experimental idea grew an education industry that expanded far beyond its original mission to teach English and resulted in the extended segregation of non-English-speaking students. In practice, many bilingual programs became more concerned with teaching in the native language and maintaining the ethnic culture of the family than with teaching children English in three years.
Much of the debate over bilingual education concentrates on the question of whether such anti-bilingual education campaigns as English for the Children are fundamentally pro- or anti-immigrant. Robert D. King, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explored this question in "Should English be the Law?" (April 1997), in which he presented a history of the connection between language and nationalism along with an analysis of the Official English movement.
Two years after an unsuccessful 1981 bid to declare English the official national language, Senator S. I. Hayakawa (R-CA) founded the organization U.S. English, which now boasts 1.7 million members and leads the Official English campaign in lobbying for English-only legislation.
Many issues intersect in the controversy over Official English: immigration (above all), the rights of minorities (Spanish-speaking minorities in particular), the pros and cons of bilingual education, tolerance, how best to educate the children of immigrants, and the place of cultural diversity in school curricula and in American society in general. The question that lies at the root of most of the uneasiness is this: Is America threatened by the preservation of languages other than English? Will America, if it continues on its traditional path of benign linguistic neglect, go the way of Belgium, Canada, and Sri Lanka—three countries among many whose unity is gravely imperiled by language and ethnic conflicts?
King argued that in the debate over Official English, language can become a "convenient surrogate for other national problems." He explained that the Official English movement acquired a "conservative, almost reactionary" undertone in the 1990s, as it "obviously [had] a lot to do with concern about immigration." To illustrate that such ideas about immigration and language were not new, King quoted a statement made by Benjamin Franklin in 1753:
Those [Germans] who come hither are generally the most ignorant stupid sort of their Own Nation.... they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we will have will not, in My Opinion, be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.
King endorsed an attitude of "benign neglect" toward concerns about language, pointing out that approximately 95 percent of U.S. residents speak English and reminding Official English ideologues that "the everyday language of south Texas is Spanish, and yet south Texas is not about to secede from America." Though he recognized that language as a "political force" has the potential to become a "divisive political issue," he advised readers to "relax and luxuriate in our linguistic richness."
History teaches a plain lesson about language and governments: there is almost nothing the government of a free country can do to change language usage and practice significantly, to force its citizens to use certain languages in preference to others, and to discourage people from speaking a language they wish to continue to speak.... We like to believe that to pass a law is to change behavior; but passing laws about language, in a free society, almost never changes attitudes or behavior.
There is currently no official language policy at the national level, but twenty-two states have passed some form of English-only legislation during the two decades that the Official English movement has existed. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, however, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002, seemed to signal a change in policy by prioritizing English-language acquisition programs over bilingual education. As this law is interpreted by courts and implemented by schools—and as language education measures continue to appear on our ballots—debate over the methodology and ideology of bilingual education will undoubtedly persist.
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Sara Lipka is a new media intern for The Atlantic. She recently returned from a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Chile.
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