Although today’s federal law requires that states provide language education to all non-native English speaking students, less than 150 years ago, Congress banned bilingual education in public schools. During the Civil War and throughout World War I and II, bilingualism was identified as a threat to national unity that increased the risk of insurrection and terrorism. As a result, the struggle for federal and state recognition of bilingual education as a civil right has been long and fierce.
This three-part series traces the roots of language repression in the United States as well as the history of the movement to ensure bilingual education as a civil right. Today, while the right to bilingual education is federally protected one, many still view multilingualism as a divisive force and advocate for English immersion as a quick way to integrate non-native speakers into mainstream classrooms. Over forty years have passed since Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act, yet the debate is far from over. Like many other civil rights battles in the United States, the struggle to guarantee equal opportunities for all language speakers continues to grow and take shape.
Throughout the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, few schools offered English language instruction for non-native speakers. Those that did were often private, religious schools or foreign language institutions that offered English as just one of many academic courses in a student’s schedule. It was not until 1839, when Ohio passed the first bilingual education law, that states began to integrate non-native English speakers into the public school system with official bilingual programs.
In the decades following the first bilingual education law, state after state began to follow Ohio’s lead and implement bilingual programs for children who spoke German, French, or Spanish. Meanwhile, in 1864, Congress barred Native American students from receiving instruction in any language other than English. This legislation signaled the continuation of a national policy of Native American assimilation, which later included coercing parents into sending their children to be “civilized” at Indian boarding schools.
Although Native Americans bore the initial brunt of the United States’ aggressive assimilation policy, the turn of the century also marked the turn of the tide on all types of bilingual education. While the number of students enrolling in bilingual schools and programs throughout the country steadily grew, so did the nationalist spirit fueling a fierce agenda of “Americanization.” In 1906, Texas passed the Nationality Act, making the ability to speak English a naturalization requirement. Eleven years later, the United States entered World War I and the anti-immigrant fever was high. Congress passed the Burnett Act, mandating that all immigrants pass an English literacy test.
As states enforced new laws outlawing foreign language instruction, bilingual education throughout the country came to a near standstill. However, in 1923, the Supreme Court struck down one such law in Nebraska, holding that prohibitions on foreign language instruction violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1927, the Court re-affirmed its position when it ruled against a Hawaii law that required schools to seek permits in order to teach a foreign language. In the decades to come, the Court continued to echo the precedent set by these two decisions. At the same time, burgeoning civil rights activists slowly started to gain momentum as they to began to organize for an end to all forms of state discrimination, including language discrimination.
Part Two of this series follows the development of the campaign for bilingual education within the greater Civil Rights Movement, leading up to the passage of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968. Part Three examines the evolution of language education over the last few decades amidst an intensifying debate between bilingual advocates and English-only proponents. The series concludes with a review of the bilingual education movement today and the future of language education in the United States.