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Bilingual Education Traces Its U.S. Roots to the Colonial Era

By James Crawford — April 01, 1987 13 min read
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Bilingual education has been part of the immigrant experience in America since the Colonial period, when native-language schooling was the rule rather than the exception.

By the late 17th century, at least 18 different tongues were spoken by European ethnic groups, not to mention the scores spoken by Indian tribes. While English was most prevalent, German, Dutch, French, Swedish, and Polish were also common.

New arrivals fought vigorously to preserve their native customs, and language loyalties were strong. Indeed, the Pilgrims had left Holland in part because they feared their children were losing English.

Where immigrant groups settled in enclaves, they naturally taught their children in their own languages, despite some attempts to impose English instruction.

Benjamin Franklin, a politician who was frustrated by his inability to influence German-speakers in Pennsylvania, urged in 1753 that English schools be established in their communities. But German parents resisted such efforts.

During the American Revolution, anti-British sentiment inspired a campaign to discard English as the official language of the new nation, according to Diego Castellanos, a historian of bilingual education. But proposals to replace English with German—or, by some accounts, Hebrew—failed in the Continental Congress, writes Mr. Castellanos, an official of the New Jersey state education department, in The Best of Two Worlds.

With mounting pressures for political unity, English became more common at ethnic schools—sometimes as a class and sometimes as a medium of instruction.

Still, no uniform language policy prevailed during the 19th century. Bilingual education was accepted in areas where ethnic groups had influence and rejected where anti-immigrant sentiment was strong.

By the mid-1800’s, public and parochial German-English schools were operating in such cities as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. One survey of school records in the Midwest found that at least 231,700 children were taught in German in 1900.

In Ohio, an 1839 law authorized instruction in English, German, or both, writes Heinz Kloss in The American Bilingual Tradition. Louisiana adopted the same statute in 1847, substituting French for German. Two years after its annexation in 1848, the Territory of New Mexico authorized Spanish-English education. Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oregon also passed laws sanctioning instruction in languages other than English.

“For much of the 19th century,” Mr. Castellanos says, “certainly before the 1880’s, the [locally controlled] structure of American public education allowed immigrant groups to incorporate linguistic and cultural traditions into the schools. ... Wherever immigrant groups possessed sufficient political power—be they Italian, Polish, Czech, French, Dutch, German—foreign languages were introduced into elementary and secondary schools, either as separate subjects or as languages of instruction.”

In advocating such an approach, William Torrey Harris, superintendent of the St. Louis schools in the 1870’s and later U.S. Commissioner of Education, argued: “National memories and aspirations; family traditions, customs, and habits; moral and religious observances cannot be suddenly removed or changed without disastrously weakening the personality.”

A resurgence of nativism in the late 19th century—a backlash against the foreign-born, led by such organizations as the Know-Nothing Party—marked the beginning of a decline for bilingual education. St. Louis canceled its German-English program in 1888 after redistricting watered down German voting strength. Louisville, Ky., and St. Paul soon followed suit, allowing German to be taught only as a foreign language in the upper grades.

New strains of xenophobia flourished as Italians and Jews began to outnumber the Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians in the immigrant stream, historians say. At the same time, social workers and educators addressed poverty among the new arrivals with a program of “Americanization.” Increasingly, the English language was emphasized as a force for civilization and social cohesion.

Following victory in the Spanish-American War, the U.S. government imposed English as the medium of instruction in its new colonies of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. “The need to consolidate the nation’s territorial gains and solidify its political processes seems to have played an important role in this drive toward cultural and linguistic homogeneity,” says Josue M. Gonzalez, director of the federal bilingual-education office in the late 1970’s.

In Puerto Rico, because “the population was entirely Spanish-speaking and 85 percent illiterate,” Mr. Castellanos says, the English-only rule “proved devastating.”

In 1916, the U.S. Commissioner of Education compromised and allowed Spanish instruction in grades 1-4, Spanish and English in grade 5, and English only thereafter—a policy that lasted until 1948.

On the mainland, President Theodore Roosevelt lectured immigrants: “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. ... Any man who comes here ... must adopt the institutions of the United States, and, therefore, he must adopt the language which is now the native tongue of our people, no matter what the several strains in our blood may be. It would not be merely a misfortune, but a crime to perpetuate differences of language in this country.”

Mr. Roosevelt advocated expanded opportunities for immigrants to learn English and the deportation of those who failed to do so within five years.

With the approach of World War I, anti-German feeling spelled trouble not only for German-language instruction, but for all bilingual-education programs. Between 1903 and 1923, the number of states mandating English as the language of instruction—in some cases extending the requirement to private schools—grew from 14 to 34, according to Mr. Castellanos. In some states, it became illegal to use German on the street, on the telephone, or in church.

In its 1923 ruling in Meyer v. Nebraska, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law prohibiting foreign-language teaching before the 9th grade.

“The protection of the Constitution extends to all those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue,” the Court said. “Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had a ready understanding of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution—a desirable end cannot be prompted by prohibited means.”

Still, the trend had been established: Bilingual education was virtually eradicated throughout the nation by what Joshua Fishman, a Yeshiva University psychologist, describes as “the anti-hyphenation, anti-foreign language, anti-immigration movement” of the period between World Wars I and II.

Roughly during the same period, the study of foreign languages, including Latin, declined dramatically, from 83 percent of high-school students in 1910 to 22 percent in 1948, according to Mr. Castellanos.

“This linguistic equivalent of ‘book burning’ worked admirably well” in forcing assimilation, Mr. Gonzalez writes.

“But,” he adds, “it worked best with the Northern European immigrants,” who had a “cultural affinity” with American values and shared a “Caucasian racial history.”

For other language minorities—and especially those with dark complexions, he noted—English-only schooling brought difficulties. While their cultures were suppressed, discrimination barred these groups from full acceptance into society.

Language Suppression

The Cherokee Indians, after their forcible removal to Oklahoma in 1838, had established an educational system and achieved a 90 percent literacy rate in their native language. And these schools “used bilingual materials to such an extent,” writes Arnold H. Leibowitz, an education historian, “that Oklahoma Cherokees had a higher English-literacy level than the white populations of either Texas or Arkansas.”

Although the U.S. government had recognized the language rights of the Cherokees and other tribes, in 1879 it began forcing Indian children into off-reservation boarding schools.

The curriculum was exclusively in English, and students were punished when caught using their own languages. This policy, soon followed by bans on Indian religious observances and mandatory haircuts for Indian men on reservations, was seen as part of a campaign to suppress Indian cultures.

Gradually, the Cherokees were transformed from the most literate to the least literate tribe.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs later rescinded the ban on Indian languages—although English remained the language of the classroom—in schools both on and off the reservations. But punishment for native-language use, such as washing children’s mouths out with soap, continued unofficially until the late 1940’s, according to Indians who speak from personal experience.

Mexican-American students endured similar treatment in the Southwest. “Spanish detention"—being kept after-school for using Spanish—continued to be a formal method of punishment in the Rio Grande Valley in the late 1960’s, according to an investigation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published in 1972.

One south Texas principal, quoted in the commission’s report, explained the disciplinary policy in this way:

“Our school is predominantly Latin American—97 percent. We try to discourage the use of Spanish on the playground, in the halls, and in the classroom. We feel that the reason so many of our pupils are reading two to three years below grade level is because their English vocabulary is so limited. We are in complete accord that it is excellent to be bilingual or multilingual, but we must ... stress the fact that practice makes perfect—that English is a very difficult language to master.”

Until 1973, it was a crime in Texas to use a language other than English as the medium of public instruction. A teacher in Crystal City, Tex., was indicted in 1970 for conducting a history class in Spanish, although the case was later dismissed.

‘Missionary-Style Assimilation’

After World War II, coercive policies gave way to an emphasis on treating the minority child’s “cultural deprivation” and “language disability.” Mr. Roosevelt’s “military-style assimilation” was replaced by a “missionary style,” according to Colman B. Stein, a consultant on immigrant education.

“Just as missionaries move in after soldiers have pacified the terrain,” Mr. Stein says, “educators of the postwar era gradually projected a softer approach to assimilation.”

English as a second language, a methodology developed in the 1930’s to teach foreign diplomats and university students English, was extended to language-minority children.

“Pullout classes” were perhaps the most common form of ESL instruction. Students were removed from regular, “sink or swim” classrooms—typically for 45 minutes a day, two to five times a week—for compensatory instruction. Unlike remedial reading, ESL techniques took a child’s lack of oral English proficiency into account.

Still, its availability was not widespread. In a civil-rights commission survey, only 5.5 percent of Mexican-American children in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas were enrolled in E.S.L. classes in 1968-69.

While many educators characterized ESL instruction as better than nothing, they still saw it as limited.

“By dealing with the student simply as a non-English speaker,” according to the commission, “most ESL classes fail to expose children to approaches, attitudes, and materials which take advantage of the rich Mexican-American heritage.”

Limited-English-proficient students learned the language too slowly through ESL instruction to keep up in other subjects, Mr. Castellanos says. And the approach of replacing Spanish with English often produced “half-lingual children: stutterers in thought, stammerers in spirit,” he adds.

The ESL approach by itself appeared to be doing little to improve the students’ educational performance. In the 1960’s, the dropout rate for Puerto Rican students in New York City was estimated at 60 percent, and the rest were almost automatically assigned to vocational tracks. In 1963, the city awarded 331 academic diplomas to Puerto Ricans—representing no more than 1 percent of the total Puerto Rican enrollment—and of the graduates, only 28 went on to college.

Also, based on their performance on English IQ tests, disproportionate numbers of language-minority children ended up in special classes for the educationally handicapped. In the early 1980’s, Hispanic children in Texas were still overrepresented by 315 percent in the “learning-disabled” category.

Coral Way Experiment

Modern bilingual education got its start, however, not among Mexican-Americans or Puerto Ricans, but among a relatively privileged minority—Cubans who fled to Miami after the Cuban revolution in 1959. These Hispanics of European stock were light-skinned and largely from the professional classes, Mr. Gonzalez says. Many had taught school in Cuba, and Florida authorities helped them become recertified—one of several programs to assist these politically favored refugees.

To serve this group, the Dade County school district provided not only ESL instruction, but, in 1961, it initiated a Spanish-for-Spanish-speakers program. Two years later, it set up a full-fledged bilingual program—the nation’s first in probably half a century.

Established at the Coral Way Elementary School, the experiment was open to both English- and Spanish-speakers. Not a compensatory program, the objective was fluent bilingualism for both groups. Pauline Rojas and Ralph Robinett, ESL specialists who had worked in Puerto Rico, directed the effort with the help of Cuban educators.

Beginning in September 1963, Coral Way’s 350 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders were grouped by language. Cuban children received Spanish instruction in the morning and English in the afternoon; for English-speaking children, the schedule was reversed. During lunch, music, and art, as well as on the playground, the two groups were mixed.

Results were immediately promising, as students appeared to progress, regardless of the language of instruction.

“The pupils in Coral Way are rapidly becoming ‘culturally advantaged,’” a 1966 report by the district concludes. “They are learning to operate effectively in two languages and two cultures.”

Indeed, Coral Way was, in most respects, deemed a success. In English reading, both language groups did as well as, or better than, counterparts in monolingual English schools, and the Cuban children achieved equivalent levels in Spanish. The Anglo students, however, fell short in Spanish reading achievement.

“In retrospect,” says Kenji Hakuta, professor of psychology at Yale University, “the difference between the two groups was not unexpected, since the predominant language of the environment is English.” The Cuban children had an advantage because, unlike their English-speaking peers, they received high-quality exposure to the second language in and out of the classroom.

In any case, Mr. Hakuta says, “the feasibility of bilingual education was established.” Variants of the Coral Way approach were applied elsewhere in Dade County, and gradually, as educators saw its benefits, the model spread to other districts.

Federal and state bilingual-education laws followed. But, many educators note, government intervention changed the focus—from an enrichment model aimed at developing fluency in two languages to a compensatory program designed to help children overcome the “language handicap” of not speaking English.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1987 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Education Traces Its U.S. Roots to the Colonial Era


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