Bilingual Education: A Historical Perspective

Language is an important indicator of immigrants’ incorporation into U.S society, and is central to many debates about current immigration. Conversations about assimilation to the English-speaking mainstream often hearken back to the early twentieth century as a time when immigrant language outcomes were more linear—claiming that all immigrants readily learned English and left their native languages behind. In contrast, proponents of contemporary English-only policies portray modern day immigrants as resistant to English and desperate to maintain their native languages. This line of thinking ignores history, and highlights a common misconception surrounding immigrants’ relationship with language and schooling.

In reality, immigrants have always had a complicated relationship with language—struggling to balance English assimilation and native language retention. Bilingual education is one way that immigrants have sought to establish that balance, and has also been an important way that immigrants have attempted to access equal educational opportunities.

Shining the spotlight on immigrant education in the early twentieth century reveals the long history of bilingualism in U.S schools, and helps shatter myths and misconceptions surrounding immigrants’ schooling and language use. Examining the historical roots of bilingual education illuminates the many forms it has taken, and helps to contextualize modern-day bilingual programs. Understanding bilingual education’s historical purposes is helpful as we continue to discuss the merits of bilingualism today.

History has shaped our ideas about immigrants in schools, and has influenced attitudes towards bilingual schooling. Historical myths have also been critical to the United States’ bilingual education policies. There is a pervasive mythology in American society that schools provide immigrants with opportunity and access to the American mainstream, even the ‘American Dream.’ Michael Olneck discusses the far-reaching power of this mythology:

Among the central legends of American history is that of the immigrant and the school. The myth that—through schooling—early twentieth century European immigrants to the United States were afforded and embraced unparalleled opportunities to achieve social mobility and ‘become American,’ has shaped responses to persisting poverty among African Americans, informed contemporary education policy toward ‘English Language Learners,’ and, generally, stood as an object lesson for how success in America is available to all (2008: 103). 

This myth has shaped the way Americans have viewed immigrant education, and has informed policies and teaching practices that have defined the experiences of immigrants in United States schools. However, the mythology surrounding immigrants in schools stands in striking contrast with the reality of the struggles faced by students, educators, and policy makers as immigrants enrolled in U.S public schools in increasing numbers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The overwhelming influx of immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century posed many challenges to the U.S education system. Students, educators, and policy makers did not know how to react as immigrants poured into United States schools.  In her book, Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education, Paula Fass describes how the infusion of immigrants into schools during the twentieth century redefined the purposes of American education (1989: 6).  Fass emphasizes the challenges this influx of immigrants presented to traditional ideas about the purposes of schooling, and discusses the way school policies were “strongly informed by contemporary perceptions about immigrants” (22).  In a society that was increasingly pluralistic, schools became even more important instruments of socialization, providing “remedial socialization” for students who were considered outsiders (6). This was particularly true for students who were linguistic outsiders, set apart from the English-speaking mainstream.

Language was often at the center of debates about the purposes of schooling. As the unprecedented number of immigrants flooded into the U.S at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, a wide array of languages surged into the country as well, creating new diversity in America’s linguistic landscape. While it is true that most public schools did not accommodate diverse language needs, immigrants still found ways to incorporate native languages into their children’s education. Language schools were a means by which immigrants facilitated linguistic and cultural retention and helped create environments where their children could learn. In her book Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in American 1880-1925, Melissa Klapper identifies three major categories of language schools: parochial or church schools, nationalist schools, and cultural or heritage schools (2007: 93). These different types of schools emphasized homeland language, religion, and culture, creating environments where immigrant students could still experience and learn about important elements of their identities. Klapper argues that language schools “helped immigrant families come to terms with the demands of Americanization,” by offering a way for immigrant children to advance academically while also preserving their cultural and linguistic heritage (101).

The widespread presence of language schools illustrates immigrants’ desires for educational spaces that allowed for native language retention and provided their children with enhanced educational opportunities. Some progressive school districts even allowed for native language instruction within public school buildings (Klapper, 2007: 101). Other schools incorporated foreign languages into daily instruction as a way to help immigrants acclimate to American, English-dominated schooling. This narrative runs counter to the misconception that early immigrants did not prioritize native language maintenance or bilingual education opportunities. Though modern-day opponents of bilingualism portray turn-of-the-century immigrants as ready to jump enthusiastically into the English-speaking melting pot, a historical perspective tells us otherwise. Bilingualism benefited these early immigrant students, who often lived in vibrant ethnic enclaves where their native languages were essential for everyday life. While these immigrant children learned English at extremely high rates, bilingual education and native language retention were important to them.

Looking at these early attempts to find a place for native languages in American schooling provides an important counter-narrative to the myths and misconceptions that are often used as fodder for contemporary anti-bilingualism activism. Immigrants have always sought to incorporate their native languages into American schooling and life, not at the expense of learning English, but rather as a way to access educational opportunities, express their ethnic identities, and carve out a place for themselves within American society.

Today, the fastest growing population in U.S schools is children of immigrants. Half of the students in this rapidly growing group are English-language learners (Calderón et. al., 2011). In their article, “Effective Instruction for English Learners,” Calderón, Slavin, and Sánchez argue that “wide and persistent achievement disparities between English learners and English-proficient students show clearly… that schools must address the language, literacy, and academic needs of English learners more effectively”(103). Like the immigrants of the early twentieth century, immigrants today have a complex relationship with language, especially in educational contexts. We need to rethink our national policies toward bilingual education, and recognize that immigrants’ desires for bilingual education and native language maintenance are not new trends- rather, they are the continuation of a long history of bilingualism and linguistic diversity in the United States.

Works Cited

Calderón, Margarita, Robert Slavin, and Marta Sánchez. 2011. “Effective Instruction for English Learners.” The Future of Children 21(1): 103-127.

Fass, Paula. Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Olneck, Michael R. “American Public Schooling and European Immigrants in the Early Twentieth Century: A Post-Revisionist Synthesis” in Rethinking the History of American Education, ed. Reese, William J., and Rury, John. L. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Klapper, Melissa. Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in America, 1880-1925. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007.

Reese, William J., and Rury, John L., eds. Rethinking the History of American Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillam, 2008.


Some Interesting Links:

Rethinking Schools—Bilingual Education Resources 

Timeline: The Bilingual Education Controversy 

Evolution of Important Events in California Bilingual Education Policy 

“Why Bilinguals are Smarter”