A Commentary and Three Books on Language Policy

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 15, 2010 2 min read
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A commentary published today at and three books released in the last few months all make the case that federal and state language policies for education have a huge impact on both the English and bilingual skills of young people over the long run.

But they have different prescriptions for what kind of language policies lead to better acquisition of English.

The commentary, by Rosemary Salomone, a law professor at St. John’s University School of Law, in New York City, argues that the No Child Left Behind Act is an impediment to supporting bilingualism among the nation’s English-language learners. She says that the education law’s provision that holds schools accountable for reclassifying students as fluent in English each year leads them to ignore instruction in students’ native languages and move them “swiftly and exclusively toward English.”

Salomone just had a book about language policy, True American, published by Harvard University Press. In it, she contends that bilingualism doesn’t impede academic success.

A second book published this year that urges schools to support bilingualism among English-language learners is Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies, edited by Patricia Gandara and Megan Hopkins and published by Teachers College Press. The book provides research studies that show state policies in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts restricting bilingual education have not been successful in helping students to learn English.

Proponents of a restrictive language policy in Massachusetts, called Question 2, “promised more rapid acquisition of English for [English-learners] in Massachusetts and, with that, a rise in academic achievement and a narrowing of the achievement gap,” write several researchers in a chapter on language education in that state. They say that the results have actually been very different than that claim, as pass rates for ELLs in Boston public schools declined on state math and English tests. Also, the achievement gap between ELLs and students in general education classes in Boston widened in both math and English after the ballot measure that restricted bilingual education was implemented.

Lastly, a new book by Rosalie Pedalino Porter, who campaigned to get Question 2 passed by voters in Massachusetts, makes the argument that the state improved the prospects of ELLs to acquire English by curtailing bilingual education. Her book, American Immigrant: My Life in Three Languages, published by iUniverse, a self-publishing company, is mostly about her own experiences in this country as an immigrant from Italy, but she does talk about her support for state policies that restrict bilingual education. She writes that “for thirty years the wrong-headed idea that children should be taught in two languages had been the law in Massachusetts and several other states, in spite of its poor results.” She contends that the restrictive language policies in California and Arizona have been successful. She faults Massachusetts for not putting out a research report that looks at the impact of Question 2 on English-language learners in that state. She doesn’t mention the research study that indicated ELLs in Boston public schools fared worse after passage of the measure.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.