The history of English language education in the United States closely follows the evolution of the United States itself. Before European occupation and invasion, there were hundreds of languages in use in North America. Consequently, the first task of those initial settlers was to conquer and subdue the native populations. Part of this process included teaching them English and preserving the English education model. Much of this was done in the name of “converting” them to Christianity. In retrospect, we were not only attempting to convert them theologically, but we were also imposing our culture and language upon them as well. Whatever one thinks of their motives, the first settlers were successful in colonizing Northeast North America and then Westward, bring along with them the English language, customs and culture. The article did not address this period, so I will call it the “Pre-Permissive Period”, when the vast majority of settlers were from England from the late1500s to the 1700s.
Germans, Dutch, polish, Italians, Czechs, French and Spanish followed the English by immigrating in the tens of thousands, ushering in The Permissive Period of the 1700s-1800s. This period was called permissive because of the belief that it was feasible to maintain each culture’s way of life while concurrently participating in the civil life of the nation. As the nation coagulated and assimilated to the collective culture of the nation, the Restrictive Period began to emerge. Prior to the Restrictive Period, the linguistic assimilation of the culture happened more organically.
The Restrictive Period was a time of declaration rather than assimilation. Indian policy harshened and worsened, the genocide was underway, and with it came an intolerance towards not only Indians but also Germans, Catholics, Southern Europeans. As a result, “English-only” laws emerged, as did a governmental push towards a homogenous approach to language and education. The results and effects of this Darwinistic sink-or-swim approach were mostly symbolic and political, however, because bi-lingual education survived by necessity.
With the second World War, restriction gave way to opportunism, as the war machine required an army of foreign language teachers. Eventually, the restrictive Naturalization Act of 1906 and the national origin quota system of 1924 gave way to The Immigration Act of 1965, allowing vast numbers of Asians and Latin Americans to enter the country. For the first time in American history, the federal government sought to build upon students’ home cultures, languages and experiences, rather than forcing them to immediately learn English before being educated in other subjects, marked by the passing of the Bilingual Education Act. Significant division on this subject remains to this day, with the detractors arguing that maintaining a United States requires maintaining a united and singular language.
Lau v Nichols (1974) was a landmark case wherein 1,800 Chinese students successfully argued that the mono-linguistic approach to education amounted to unequal treatment, resulting in an un-Constitutional deprivation of educational opportunity. The Lau case didn’t go as far as prescribing specific methodology to restore the civil rights of those deprived. However, it gave the federal government leverage to use against school districts who refused to accommodate ELL’s, using federal funding as the billy club.
Castaneda v. Pickard (1981) struck the next blow, giving more specific guidelines and putting teeth to the Lau ruling. These days, it’s like the Wild West, where enclaves of thought co-exist without a cohesive national plan. Structured, immersion, partial immersion, transitional bi-lingual programs, maintenance and development programs, and two-way immersion programs all exist simultaneously in different systems. Federal legislation has not gone far enough, and bureaucracy seems to have taken the place of leadership. What we all agree upon is that we must be inclusive and tolerant. What we don’t agree upon is what that actually means or what it looks like to the student. It’s all bogged down in a mushy soup of inclusion and political correctness, without clear objectives or pedagogical super-structure. If anything the Lau decision hangs like a spectre of fear for educational systems who do not comply with bi-lingual education mandates.
The Dismissive Period brings us to the present day, wherein Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush declared that we are doing a disservice to speakers of other languages by not insisting that they learn English in order to participate in the job market and in the culture. Nowaydays, failing to teach English is often used as a reason for poor performance in other subjects. School systems use it as an excuse for poor performance rather than as an objective and a priority.
Today, many challenges and questions remain. Is bi-lingual education a necessity in the modern world? Do we treat new immigrants like precious snowflakes these days, rather than using the Darwinistic “sink-or-swim” approach as in times past? Is the right solution somewhere in between? In a country where so many dozens of second languages exist, which language other than English should or indeed can also be taught? Why are we the only Western developed country without an official language? How can we embrace diversity whilst also stressing a unified national language? These and other important questions must be answered and leadership must be provided if we are to navigate these murky waters.