Bilingual Education

views updated Jun 08 2018


Bilingual education is a broad term that refers to the presence of two languages in instructional settings. The term is, however, "a simple label for a complex phenomenon" (Cazden and Snow, p. 9) that depends upon many variables, including the native language of the students, the language of instruction, and the linguistic goal of the program, to determine which type of bilingual education is used. Students may be native speakers of the majority language or a minority language. The students' native language may or may not be used to teach content material. Bilingual education programs can be considered either additive or subtractive in terms of their linguistic goals, depending on whether students are encouraged to add to their linguistic repertoire or to replace their native language with the majority language (see Table 1 for a typology of bilingual education). Bilingual education is used here to refer to the use of two languages as media of instruction.

Need for Bilingual Education

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, proficiency in only one language is not enough for economic, societal, and educational success. Global interdependence and mass communication often require the ability to function in more than one language. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 9.7 million children ages five to seventeenone of every six school-age childrenspoke a language other than English at home. These language-minority children are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. school-age population. Between 1990 and 2000, the population of language-minority children increased by 55 percent, while the population of children living in homes where only English is spoken grew by only 11 percent.

Language-minority students in U.S. schools speak virtually all of the world's languages, including more than a hundred that are indigenous to the United States. Language-minority students may be monolingual in their native language, bilingual in their native language and English, or monolingual in English but from a home where a language other than English is spoken. Those who have not yet developed sufficient proficiency in English to learn content material in all-English-medium classrooms are known as limited English proficient (LEP) or English language learners (ELLs). Reliable estimates place the number of LEP students in American schools at close to four million.

Benefits of Bilingualism and Theoretical Foundations of Bilingual Education

Bilingual education is grounded in common sense, experience, and research. Common sense says that children will not learn academic subject material if they can't understand the language of instruction. Experience documents that students from minority-language backgrounds historically have higher dropout rates and lower achievement scores. Finally, there is a basis for bilingual education that draws upon research in language acquisition and education. Research done by Jim Cummins, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, supports a basic tenet of bilingual education: children's first language skills must become well developed to ensure that their academic and linguistic performance in the second language is maximized. Cummins's developmental interdependencetheory suggests that growth in a second language is dependent upon a well-developed first language, and his thresholds theory suggests that a child must attain a certain level of proficiency in both the native and second language in order for the beneficial aspects of bilingualism to accrue. Cummins also introduced the concept of the common underlying proficiency


model of bilingualism, which explains how concepts learned in one language can be transferred to another. Cummins is best known for his distinction between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). BICS, or everyday conversational skills, are quickly acquired, whereas CALP, the highly decontextualized, abstract language skills used in classrooms, may take seven years or more to acquire.

Stephen Krashen, of the School of Education at the University of Southern California, developed an overall theory of second language acquisition known as the monitor model. The core of this theory is the distinction between acquisition and learningacquisition being a subconscious process occurring in authentic communicative situations and learning being the conscious process of knowing about a language. The monitor model also includes the natural order hypothesis, the input hypothesis, the monitor hypothesis, and the affective filter hypothesis. Together, these five hypotheses provide a structure for, and an understanding of how to best design and implement, educational programs for language-minority students. Krashen put his theory into practice with the creation of the natural approach and the gradual exit model, which are based on a second tenet of bilingual educationthe concept of comprehensible input. In other words, language teaching must be designed so that language can be acquired easily, and this is done by using delivery methods and levels of language that can be understood by the student.

Bilingual Education around the World

It is estimated that between 60 and 75 percent of the world is bilingual, and bilingual education is a common educational approach used throughout the world. It may be implemented in different ways for majority and/or minority language populations, and there may be different educational and linguistic goals in different countries. In Canada, immersion education programs are designed for native speakers of the majority language (English) to become proficient in a minority language (French), whereas heritage-language programs are implemented to assist native speakers of indigenous and immigrant languages become proficient in English.

In Israel, bilingual education programs not only help both the Arabic-and Hebrew-speaking populations become bilingual, they also teach Hebrew to immigrants from around the world. In Ireland, bilingual education is being implemented to restore the native language. In many South American countries, such as Peru and Ecuador, there are large populations of indigenous peoples who speak languages other than Spanish. Bilingual education programs there have the goal of bilingualism. Throughout Europe, bilingual education programs are serving immigrant children as well as promoting bilingualism for speakers of majority languages.

Bilingual Education in the United States

Since the first colonists arrived on American shores, education has been provided through languages other than English. As early as 1694, German-speaking Americans were operating schools in their mother tongue. As the country expanded, wherever language-minority groups had power, bilingual education was common. By the mid-1800s, there were schools throughout the country using German, Dutch, Czech, Spanish, Norwegian, French, and other languages, and many states had laws officially authorizing bilingual education. In the late 1800s, however, there was a rise in nativism, accompanied by a large wave of new immigrants at the turn of the century. As World War I began, the language restrictionist movement gained momentum, and schools were given the responsibility of replacing immigrant languages and cultures with those of the United States.

Despite myths to the contrary, non-native English speakers neither learned English very quickly nor succeeded in all-English schools. A comparison of the high-school entry rates based on a 1908 survey of public schools shows, for example, that in Boston, while 70 percent of the children of native whites entered high school, only 32 percent of the children of non-native English-speaking immigrants did so. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century one could easily find a good job that did not require proficiency in English.

By 1923, thirty-four states had passed laws mandating English as the language of instruction in public schools. For the next two decades, with significantly reduced immigration levels, bilingual education was virtually nonexistent in the public schools, although parochial and private schools continued to teach in languages other than English.

In the postWorld War II period, however, a series of eventsincluding increased immigration, the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, the civil rights movement, the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, the National Defense Education Act, the War on Poverty, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965led to a rebirth of bilingual education in the United States. In 1963, in response to the educational needs of the large influx of Cuban refugees in Miami, Coral Way Elementary School began a two-way bilingual education program for English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students. In 1967, U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough introduced a bill, the Bilingual Education Act, as Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, noting that children who enter schools not speaking English cannot understand instruction that is conducted in English. By the mid-1970s, states were funding bilingual education programs, and many passed laws mandating or permitting instruction though languages other than English.

In 1974, the Supreme Court heard the case of Lau v. Nichols, a class-action suit brought on behalf of Chinese students in the San Francisco schools, most of whom were receiving no special instruction despite the fact that they did not speak English. The Court decided that these students were not receiving equal educational opportunity because they did not understand the language of instruction and the schools were not doing anything to assist them. The Court noted that "imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effectively participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic [English] skills is to make a mockery of public education."

While there has never been a federal mandate requiring bilingual education, the courts and federal legislationincluding Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in federally assisted programs and activities, and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which defines a denial of educational opportunity as the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programshave attempted to guarantee that LEP students are provided with comprehensible instruction.

The population of the United States became more and more diverse as immigration levels reached record levels between the 1970s and the turn of the century, and bilingual education programs were implemented throughout the country. The Bilingual Education Act was reauthorized in 1974, 1978, 1984, 1988, 1994, and 2001, each time improving and expanding upon the opportunities for school districts and institutions of higher education to receive assistance from this discretionary, competitive grant program. The 2001 reauthorization significantly changed the program, replacing all references to bilingual education with the phrase "language instruction educational program" and turning it into a state-administered formula-grant program.

Characteristics of Good Bilingual Education Programs

Good bilingual education programs recognize and build upon the knowledge and skills children bring to school. They are designed to be linguistically, culturally, and developmentally appropriate for the students and have the following characteristics:

  1. High expectations for students and clear programmatic goals.
  2. A curriculum that is comparable to the material covered in the English-only classroom.
  3. Instruction through the native language for subject matter.
  4. An English-language development component.
  5. Multicultural instruction that recognizes and incorporates students' home cultures.
  6. Administrative and instructional staff, and community support for the program.
  7. Appropriately trained personnel.
  8. Adequate resources and linguistically, culturally, and developmentally appropriate materials.
  9. Frequent and appropriate monitoring of student performance.
  10. Parental and family involvement.

Debate over Bilingual Education

The debate over bilingual education has two sources. Part of it is a reflection of societal attitudes towards immigrants. Since language is one of the most obvious identifiers of an immigrant, restrictions on the use of languages other than English have been imposed throughout the history of the United States, particularly in times of war and economic uncertainty. Despite claims that the English language is in danger, figures from the 2000 Census show that 96 percent of those over the age of five speak English well or very well. Rolf Kjolseth concluded that language is also closely associated with national identity, and Americans often display a double standard with regard to bilingualism. On the one hand, they applaud a native English-speaking student studying a foreign language and becoming bilingual, while on the other hand they insist that non-native English speakers give up their native languages and become monolingual in English.

Much of the debate over bilingual education stems from an unrealistic expectation of immediate results. Many people expect LEP students to accomplish a task that they themselves have been unable to dobecome fully proficient in a new language. Furthermore, they expect these students to do so while also learning academic subjects like mathematics, science, and social studies at the same rate as their English-speaking peers in a language they do not yet fully command. While students in bilingual education programs maintain their academic progress by receiving content-matter instruction in their native language, they may initially lag behind students in all-English programs on measures of English language proficiency. But longitudinal studies show that not only do these students catch up, but they also often surpass their peers both academically and linguistically.

Proposition 227, a ballot initiative mandating instruction only in English for students who did not speak English, and passed by 63 percent of the 30 percent of the people in California who voted in 1998, is both a reflection of the public debate over bilingual education and an example of the impact of public opinion on education policy. Although only 30 percent of the LEP students in California were enrolled in bilingual education programs at the time (the other 70 percent were in all-English programs), bilingual education was identified as the cause of academic failure on the part of Hispanic students (many of whom were monolingual in English), and the public voted to prohibit bilingual education. Instead, LEP students were to be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally to exceed one year. Three years after the implementation of Proposition 227, the scores of LEP students on state tests were beginning to decline rather than increase.

Research Evidence on the Effectiveness of Bilingual Education

There are numerous studies that document the effectiveness of bilingual education. One of the most notable was the eight-year (1984-1991) Longitudinal Study of Structured English Immersion Strategy, Early-Exit and Late-Exit Programs for Language-Minority Children. The findings of this study were later validated by the National Academy of Sciences. The study compared three different approaches to educating LEP students where the language of instruction was radically different in grades one and two. One approach was structured immersion, where almost all instruction was provided in English. A second approach was early-exit transitional bilingualeducation, in which there is some initial instruction in the child's primary language (thirty to sixty minutes per day), and all other instruction in English, with the child's primary language used only as a support, for clarification. However, instruction in the primary language is phased out so that by grade two, virtually all instruction is in English. The third approach was late-exit transitional bilingual education, where students received 40 percent of their instruction in the primary language and would continue to do so through sixth grade, regardless of whether they were reclassified as fluent-English-proficient.

Although the outcomes were not significantly different for the three groups at the end of grade three, by the sixth grade late-exit transitional bilingual education students were performing higher on mathematics, English language, and English reading than students in the other two programs. The study concluded that those students who received more native language instruction for a longer period not only performed better academically, but also acquired English language skills at the same rate as those students who were taught only in English. Furthermore, by sixth grade, the late-exit transitional bilingual education students were the only group catching up academically, in all content areas, to their English-speaking peers; the other two groups were falling further behind.

Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas, professors in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University, have conducted one of the largest longitudinal studies ever, with more than 700,000 student records. Their findings document that when students who have had no schooling in their native language are taught exclusively in English, it takes from seven to ten years to reach the age and grade-level norms of their native English-speaking peers. Students who have been taught through both their native language and English, however, reach and surpass the performance of native English-speakers across all subject areas after only four to seven years when tested in English. Furthermore, when tested in their native language, these bilingual education students typically score at or above grade level in all subject areas.

Ninety-eight percent of the children entering kindergarten in California's Calexico School District are LEP. In the early 1990s, the school district shifted the focus of its instructional program from student limitations to student strengthsfrom remedial programs emphasizing English language development to enriched programs emphasizing total academic development; from narrow English-as-a-second-language programs to comprehensive developmental bilingual education programs that provide dual-language instruction. In Calexico schools, LEP students receive as much as 80 percent of their early elementary instruction in their native language. After students achieve full English proficiency, they continue to have opportunities to study in, and further develop, their Spanish language skills. By the late 1990s, Calexico's dropout rate was half the state average for Hispanic students, and more than 90 percent of their graduates were continuing on to junior or four-year colleges and universities.

The evidence on the effectiveness of dual immersion (or two-way) bilingual education programs is even more compelling. In dual immersion programs, half of the students are native speakers of English and half are native speakers of another language. Instruction is provided through both languages and the goal of these programs is for all students to become proficient in both languages. In her research, Kathryn Lindholm-Leary, a professor of child development in the College of Education at San Jose State University, found that in developing proficiency in the English language, both English and Spanish speakers benefit equally from dual-language programs. Whether they spend 10 to 20 percent or 50 percent of their instructional day in English, students in such programs are equally proficient in English. Mathematics achievement was also found to be highly related across the two languages, demonstrating that content learned in one language is available in the other language. Despite limited English instruction and little or no mathematics instruction in English, students receiving 90 percent of their instruction in Spanish score at or close to grade level on mathematics achievement tests in English.

Bilingual education offers great opportunities to both language-majority and language-minority populations. It is an educational approach that not only allows students to master academic content material, but also become proficient in two languagesan increasingly valuable skill in the early twenty-first century.

See also: Bilingualism, Second Language Learning, AND English as a Second Language; Foreign Language Education.


Baker, Colin. 1995. A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism. Clevedon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters.

Baker, Colin. 1996. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 2nd edition. Clevedon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters.

Baker, Colin. 2000. The Care and Education of Young Bilinguals: An Introduction for Professionals. Clevedon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters.

Baker, Colin, and Hornberger, Nancy H., eds. 2001. An Introductory Reader to the Writings of Jim Cummins. Clevedon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters.

Cazden, Courtney B., and Snow, Catherine E., eds. 1990. "English Plus: Issues in Bilingual Education." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 508. London:Sage.

Collier, Virginia P. 1992. "A Synthesis of Studies Examining Long-Term Language Minority Student Data on Academic Achievement." Bilingual Research Journal 16 (1&2) 187212.

Collier, Virginia P., and Thomas, Wayne P. 1997. School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students, NCBE Resource Collection Number 9. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Collier, Virginia P., and Thomas, Wayne P. 2002. A National Survey of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students' Long-Term Academic Achievement: Executive Summary. Santa Cruz, CA: Crede.

Crawford, James. 1991. Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory and Practice, 2nd edition. Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services.

Crawford, James. 1997. Best Evidence: Research Foundations of the Bilingual Education Act. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Cummins, James. 1979. "Linguistic Interdependence and the Educational Development of Bilingual Children." Review of Educational Research 49:222251.

Cummins, James. 1980. "The Entry and Exit Fallacy in Bilingual Education." NABE Journal 4:2560.

Cummins, James. 2000. Language, Power, and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Clevedon, Eng., and Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Kjolseth, Rolf. 1983. "Cultural Politics of Bilingualism." Society 20 (May/June):4048.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1999. Condemned Without a Trial: Bogus Arguments Against Bilingual Education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lindholm-Leary, Kathryn. 2000. Biliteracy for a Global Society: An Idea Book on Dual Language Education. Washington, DC: National Clearing-house for Bilingual Education.

Lindholm-Leary, Kathryn. 2001. Dual Language Education. Clevedon, Eng., and Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.

National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. 2000. The Growing Number of Limited English Proficient Students. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

RamÍrez, J. David; Yuen, Sandra D.; and Ramey, Dena R. 1991. Final Report: Longitudinal Study of Structured English Immersion Strategy, Early-Exit and Late-Exit Programs for Language-Minority Children. Report Submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.

Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. 1981. Bilingualism or Not: The Education of Minorities. Clevedon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters.

United States Government Accounting Office. 2001. Meeting the Needs of Students with Limited English Proficiency. Washington, DC: Government Accounting Office.

Zelasko, Nancy Faber. 1991. The Bilingual Double Standard: Mainstream Americans' Attitudes Towards Bilingualism. Ph.D. diss., Georgetown University.

Nancy F. Zelasko

Bilingualism/Bilingual Education

views updated May 08 2018

Bilingualism/Bilingual education


Bilingualism is the ability to communicate in two different languages. Bilingual education is the use of two different languages in classroom instruction.


Languages are learned most readily during the toddler and preschool years and, to a lesser extent, during elementary school. Therefore, children growing up in bilingual homes and/or receiving bilingual education easily acquire both languages. Throughout much of the world, bilingualism is the norm for both children and adults. In the past, immigrants to the United States often began learning and using English in their homes as soon as possible. In the early 2000s, however, many immigrants choose to maintain their native language at home. Bilingual children are at an advantage in this increasingly multilingual nation.

Bilingual language development

Language acquisition is very similar for monolingual and bilingual children, although some experts view bilingualism as a specialized case of language development . Children growing up in homes where two different languages are spoken usually acquire both languages simultaneously. Although their acquisition of each language may be somewhat slower than that of children who are acquiring a single language, their development in the two languages combined is equivalent to that of monolingual children. Bilingual language learners proceed through the same patterns of language and speech development as children acquiring a single language. Their first words usually are spoken at about one year of age, and they begin stringing two words together at about age two. Even if the two languages do not share similarities in pronunciation, children eventually master them both.

There are two major patterns of bilingual language development, both occurring before the age of three. Simultaneous bilingualism occurs when a child learns both languages at the same time. In the early stages of simultaneous bilingual language development, a child may mix words, parts of words, and inflections from both languages in a single sentence. Sometimes this occurs because a child knows a word in one language but not in the other. Some bilingual children initially resist learning words for the same thing in two languages. Children also may experiment with their two languages for effect. During the second stage of bilingual language development, at age four or older, children gradually begin to distinguish between the two languages and use them separately, sometimes depending on where they are. One language may be used less formally to talk about home and family , whereas the other language may be used more formally, perhaps for relating events that took place outside the home. Often children find it easier to express a specific idea in one language rather than the other. Bilingual children also go through periods when one language is used more than the other. Some children may begin to prefer one language over the other, particularly if that language is spoken more frequently in their home or school. Bilingual children usually are not equally skilled in both languages. Often they understand more in one language but speak more in the other.

Sequential bilingualism occurs when children use their knowledge of and experience with a first language to rapidly acquire a second language. The first language may influence the way in which they learn and use their second language. Learning the second language is easier for children if the sounds, words, and vocabulary of the languages are similar.

Bilingual language development usually proceeds more smoothly when both languages are introduced early and simultaneously. When the parents each use a different language with their child, the child is less likely to experience language confusion.

Research indicates that there are numerous advantages to bilingualism. Bilingualism has been reported to improve the following skills:

  • verbal and linguistic abilities
  • general reasoning
  • concept formation
  • divergent thinking
  • metalinguistic skills, the ability to analyze and talk about language and control language processing

These abilities are important for reading development in young children and may be a prerequisite for later learning to read and write in a new language.

Types of bilingual education

Bilingual education is common throughout the world and involves hundreds of languages. In the United States bilingualism is assumed to mean English and another language, often Spanish. More than 300 languages are spoken in the United States. In New York City schools, classroom instruction is given in 115 different languages. Bilingual education includes all teaching methods that are designed to meet the needs of English-language learners (ELLs), also referred to as "limited English proficient" (LEP) students.

There are numerous approaches to bilingual education, although all include English as a second language (ESL). ESL is English language instruction that includes little or no use of a child's native language. ESL classes often include students with many different primary languages. Some school districts use a variety of approaches to bilingual education, designing individual programs based on the needs of each child.

A common approach is transitional bilingual education (TBE). TBE programs include ESL; however, some or all academic classes are conducted in children's primary languages until they are well-prepared for English-only classes. Even children who converse well in English may not be ready to learn academic subjects in English. Often these children spend part of the school day in an intensive ESL program and the remainder of the day receiving instruction in their primary language. Bilingual teachers may help students improve their primary language skills. Bilingual/bicultural programs include instruction in the history and culture of a student's ethnic heritage. Studies have shown that children who receive several years of instruction in their native language learn English faster and have higher overall academic achievement levels that those who do not.

Two-way bilingual or dual-language programs use both English and a second language in classrooms made up of both ELLs and native English speakers. The goal is for both groups to become bilingual. Children in twoway bilingual education programs have been found to outperform their peers academically.

Many educatorsand a segment of the publicbelieve in the English immersion approach, even if ELLs do not understand very much in the classroom. In this approach nearly all instruction is in English, and there is little or no use of other languages. If the teacher is bilingual, students may be allowed to ask questions in their native language, but the teacher answers them in English. Some schools employ structured English immersion or sheltered English, in which teachers use pictures, simple reading words, and other techniques to teach ELLs both English and academic subjects.

History of bilingual education

Although bilingual education has been used in the United States for more than 200 years, the 1968 Title VII amendment to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) instituted federal grants for bilingual education programs. This legislation led to the development of appropriate teaching and learning materials and training for teachers of bilingual students.

In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the San Francisco school system had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by not providing English-language instruction for Chinese-speaking students. All school districts were directed to serve ELLs adequately, and bilingual education quickly spread throughout the United States. In the 1980s a group called Asian Americans United filed a class-action lawsuit charging that Asian Americans were not being provided with an equitable education because they were not offered bilingual classes. The result of this suit was the creation of sheltered ESL, in which ESL students take all of their classes together.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001President George W. Bush's major education initiativereauthorized the ESEA. It also imposed penalties on schools that did not raise the achievement levels of ELLs for at least two consecutive years. Although most research indicates that it often takes seven years for ELLs to attain full English fluency, the new federal law allows these children only three years before they must take standardized tests in English. Schools with large numbers of children speaking many different languages are particularly disadvantaged under the law. A 2003 survey by the National Education Association found that 22,000 schools in 44 states failed to make the required yearly progress on standardized tests, primarily because of low test scores by ELLs and disabled students. The National Association for Bilingual Education claims that NCLB sets arbitrary goals for achievement and uses "invalid and unreliable assessments." Furthermore, although the NCLB requires teachers to be qualified, as of 2004 there is a severe shortage of qualified teachers for ELLs. Some communities have developed early-intervention programs for Spanish-speaking parents and preschoolers to help children develop their Spanish language skills in preparation for entering English-only schools.

In May of 2004, the U.S. Department of Education and faith-based community leaders launched an initiative to inform Hispanic, Asian, and other parents of ELLs about the NCLB. It featured the "Declaration of Rights for Parents of English Language Learners under No Child Left Behind."

As of 2004 American public schools include about 11 million children of immigrants. Approximately 5.5 million students10 percent of the public school enrollmentspeak little or no English. Spanish speakers account for 80 percent of these children. About one-third of children enrolled in urban schools speak a primary language other than English in their homes. Between 2001 and 2004, 19 states reported increases of 50 to 200 percent in Spanish-speaking students. ELLs are the fastest-growing public school population in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Between 2000 and 2002, nationwide ELL enrollment increased 27 percent. About 25 percent of California public school children are ELLs. However, there is a profound shortage of bilingual and ESL teachers throughout the United States. Although 41 percent of U.S. teachers have ELLs in their classrooms, only about 2.5 percent of them have degrees in ESL or bilingual education. The majority of these teachers report that they are not well-prepared for teaching ELLs. About 75 percent of ELLs are in poverty schools, where student turnover is high and many teachers have only emergency credentials.

Opposition to bilingual education

In 1980 voters in Dade County, Florida, made English their official language. In 1981 California Senator S. I. Hayakawa introduced a constitutional amendment to make English the country's official language. In 1983 Hayakawa founded U.S. English, Inc., which grew to include 1.8 million members by 2004. U.S. English argues the following premises:

  • The unifying effect of the English language must be preserved in the United States.
  • Bilingual education fails to adequately teach English.
  • Learning English quickly in English-only classrooms is best for ELLs, both academically and socially.
  • Any special language instruction should be short-term and transitional.

In 1986 California voters passed Proposition 63 that made English the state's official language. Other states did the same. In 1998 Californians passed Proposition 227, a referendum that attempted to eliminate bilingual education by allowing only one year of structured English immersion, followed by mainstreaming. Similar initiatives have appeared on other state ballots. However, only 9 percent of the California children attained English proficiency in one year, and most remained in the immersion programs for a second year. Prior to the new law only 29 percent of California ELLs were in bilingual programs, in part because of a shortage of qualified teachers. Since the law allowed parents to apply for waivers, 12 percent of the ELLs were allowed to remain in bilingual classes.

In January of 2004, as part of a lawsuit settlement, the California State Board of Education was forced to radically revise the implementation of their "Reading First" program. Previously California had withheld all of the $133 million provided by NCLB from ELLs enrolled in alternative bilingual programs.

Common problems

Language delay

Language and learning difficulties occur with the same frequency in monolingual and bilingual children. However, as the number of bilingual children in the United States increases, it becomes increasingly important for parents and pediatricians to understand the normal patterns of bilingual language development in order to recognize abnormal language development in a bilingual child.

If a bilingual child has a speech or language problem, it should be apparent in both languages. However detecting language delays or abnormalities in bilingual children can be difficult. Signs of possible language delay in bilingual children include the following:

  • not making sounds between two and six months of age
  • fewer than one new word per week in children aged six to 15 months
  • fewer than 20 words in the two languages combined by 20 months of age
  • limited vocabulary without word combinations in children aged two to three years of age
  • prolonged periods without using speech
  • difficulty remembering words
  • missing normal milestones of language development in the first language of a sequentially bilingual child

Language development in bilingual children can be assessed by a bilingual speech/language pathologist or by a professional who has knowledge of the rules and structure of both languages, perhaps with the assistance of a translator or interpreter.

English-only education

ELLs in English-only programs often fall behind academically. Many ELLs who are assessed using traditional methods are referred for special education . Such children often become school drop-outs.

Parental concerns

Parents in bilingual households can help their children by taking the following steps:

  • speaking the language in which they are most comfortable
  • being consistent regarding how and with whom they use each language
  • using each language's grammar in a manner that is appropriate for the child's developmental stage
  • keeping children interested and motivated in language acquisition


Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) The 1965 federal law that is reauthorized and amended every five years.

English as a second language (ESL) English language instruction for English language learners (ELLs) that includes little or no use of a child's native language; a component of all bilingual education programs.

English language learner (ELL) A student who is learning English as a second language; also called limited English proficient (LEP).

Immersion A language education approach in which English is the only language used.

Limited English proficient (LEP) Used to identify children who have insufficient English to succeed in English-only classrooms; also called English language learner (ELL).

Metalinguistic skills The ability to analyze language and control internal language processing; important for reading development in children.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act The 2001 reauthorization of the ESEA, President George W. Bush's major education initiative.

Sequential bilingualism Acquiring first one language and then a second language before the age of three.

Sheltered English Structured English immersion; English instruction for ELLs that focuses on content and skills rather than the language itself; uses simplified language, visual aids, physical activity, and the physical environment to teach academic subjects.

Sheltered ESL Bilingual education in which ESL students attend all of their classes together.

Simultaneous bilingualism Acquiring two languages simultaneously before the age of three.

Structured English immersion Sheltered English; English-only instruction for ELLs that uses simplified language, visual aids, physical activity, and the physical environment to teach academic subjects.

Transitional bilingual education (TBE) Bilingual education that includes ESL and academic classes conducted in a child's primary language.

Two-way bilingual education Dual language programs in which English and a second language are both used in classes consisting of ELLs and native-English speakers.

See also Language development.



Bhatia, Tej K., and William C. Ritchie, eds. The Handbook of Bilingualism. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Cadiero-Kaplan, Karen. The Literacy Curriculum and Bilingual Education: A Critical Examination. New York: P. Lang, 2004.

Calderon, Margarita, and Liliana Minaya-Rowe. Designing and Implementing Two-Way Bilingual Programs: A Step-by-Step Guide for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2003.

Crawford, James. Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom. Los Angeles, CA: Bilingual Educational Services, 2004.

Genesee, Fred, et al. Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes, 2004.

Santa Ana, Otto, ed. Tongue-Tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

San Miguel Jr., Guadalupe. Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States, 19602001. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2004.


Dillon, Sam. "School Districts Struggle with English Fluency Mandate." New York Times November 5, 2003.

Gutiérrez-Clellen, Vera F., et al. "Verbal Working Memory in Bilingual Children." Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 47, no. 4 (August 2004): 86376.

Hamers, Josiane F. "A Sociocognitive Model of Bilingual Development." Journal of Language and Social Psychology 23, no. 1 (March 2004): 70.

Hammer, Carol Scheffner, et al. "Home Literacy Experiences and Their Relationship to Bilingual Preschoolers' Developing English Literacy Abilities: An Initial Investigation." Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 34 (January 2003): 2030.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. 10801 Rockville Pike, Rockville, MD 20852. Web site: <>.

National Association for Bilingual Education. 1030 15th St., NW, Suite 470, Washington, DC 20005. Web site: <>.

National Association for Multicultural Education. 733 15th St., NW, Suite 430, Washington, DC 20005. Web site: <>.

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement & Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students, U.S. Department of Education, George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, 2121 K St., NW, Suite 260, Washington, DC 20037. Web site: <>.

U.S. English Inc. 1747 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20006. Web site: <>.


"Children and Bilingualism." American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Available online at <> (accessed December 6, 2004).

"Immigrant Children Enrolled in Some of the State's Poorest School Districts Will Now Have Access to Millions of Dollars to Help Them Learn to Read." hispanicvista, January 29, 2004. Available online at <> (accessed December 6, 2004).

Jehlen, Alain. "English Lessons." National Education Association, May 2002. Available online at <> (accessed December 6, 2004).

"Language Development in Bilingual Children." Available online at <> (accessed December 6, 2004).

"What is Bilingual Education?" National Association for Bilingual Education, 2001. Available online at <> (accessed December 6, 2004).

"What's the Score on English-Only?" National Education Association, May 2002. Available online at <> (accessed December 6, 2004).

Margaret Alic, PhD


views updated May 29 2018


Sections within this essay:

Types of Bilingual Education
Conflicting Philosophies

Historical Perspective
Landmark Legislation
Setting the Stage
The Civil Rights Act (1964)
Bilingual Education Act (1968)
Lau v. Nichols

State and Local Initiatives
Grants and Programs
Additional Resources
Center for Applied Linguistics
National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE)
National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (NCBE)
National Education Association (NEA)
National multicultural Institute (NMCI)
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
U.S. Department of Education
Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (OBEMLA)


At the beginning of the twenty-first century there were some three million children in the United States who were classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP). For much of the twentieth century these students would have been placed in so-called "immersion programs," in which they would be taught solely in English until they understood it as well or better than their native tongue. Beginning in the 1960s there was a gradual shift toward bilingual education, in which students can master English while retaining their native-language skills.

Types of Bilingual Education

There is a difference between bilingual programs and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, although bilingual programs include an ESL component. Bilingual programs are designed to introduce students to English gradually by working with them in both English and their native tongue. The students are able to master English without losing proficiency in the native language. In bilingual or dual language immersion, the class typically includes English speaking students and LEP students who share the same native language. Instruction is given in both English and the native language. In developmental or late-exit programs, all students share the same language; instruction begins in that language but gradually shifts to English as the students become more proficient.

Transitional or early-exit programs are similar to developmental programs, except that the goal is mastery of English rather than bilingualism. Students who become proficient in English are transferred to English-only classes.

Bilingualism is not generally a goal in ESL programs. In sheltered English or structured immersion programs, LEP students are taught in English (supplemented by gestures and other visual aids). The goal is acquisition of English. Pull-out ESL programs include English-only instruction, but LEP participants are "pulled out" of the classroom for part of the day for lessons in their native tongue.

Conflicting Philosophies

Bilingual education in the United States is a complex cultural issue because of two conflicting philosophies. On the one hand is the idea that the United States welcomes people from all societies, from all walks of life. Immigrants have long seen the States as the "Land of Opportunity," in which individuals can rise to the top through hard work and determination. They can build new identities for themselves, but they can also hold on to their past culture without fear of reprisal. At the same time, the United States is also the great "melting pot" in which immigrants are expected to assimilate if they wish to avail themselves of the many opportunities for freedom and success. Everyone who comes to the States, so they are told, should want to become American.

Thus there are people who believe strongly that erasing an immigrant's native tongue is erasing a key cultural element. People are entitled to speak and use their native languages as they please; anything less goes against the freedom for which the United States stands. Besides, having proficiency or fluency in more than one language is a decided advantage in a world that has become more interdependent.

There are other people who believe, equally strongly, that everyone who lives and works in the United States should speak, read, and write in English. Those who oppose bilingual programs for LEP students believe that allowing children to learn in their native tongue puts them at a disadvantage in a country in which English is the common language. A student whose instruction is in another language, they say, may never master English. This closes doors to opportunities including higher education and choice of career.

There is no uniform opinion even among immigrant parents of LEP children. Some parents want their children to be taught in their native tongue as a means of preserving their culture. Others, wishing their children to have the same opportunities as native speakers of English, want their children to be taught in English from the outset.

The one point on which everyone seems to agree is that LEP children deserve the best educational opportunities available, and any language program must be structured enough to give them a good foundation, while it remains flexible enough to meet their varied needs.

Historical Perspective

Although we tend to think of bilingualism in the United States as a modern issue, in fact it has always been a part of our history. In the early days of exploration and colonization, French, Spanish, Dutch, and German were as common as English. By 1664, the year that the British took control of New York from the Dutch, there were some 18 languages (not including the native American tongues) spoken in lower Manhattan alone. No doubt many of the inhabitants of the colony were conversant in more than two languages.

German and French remained common in colonial North America. Many Germans educated their children in German-language schools. Although many colonial leaders (among them Benjamin Franklin) complained about bilingualism, it was generally accepted. In fact, during and after the American Revolution, such documents as the Articles of Confederation were published in both English and German.

During the nineteenth century millions of immigrants came to the United States and brought their languages with them. German remained popular, as did other European tongues. Spanish was introduced when the United States took possession of Texas, Florida, and California from Spain.

The enormous wave of immigration that began in the 1880s and lasted until the early 1920s brought a change in sentiment toward bilingual education. The goals of voluntary assimilation were gradually replaced by strident calls for "Americanization." In Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines (which the United States had acquired after the Spanish-American War in 1898), English was to be the language of instruction even though most of these new Americans spoke no English at all. In 1906, Congress passed a law, the first language law ever passed, requiring naturalized citizens to be able to speak English. Anti-bilingual sentiment got stronger as more immigrants poured into the United States. Anti-German sentiment, which reached its peak when the United States entered World War I in 1917, caused some communities to ban the use of German in public.

By the end of the war, bilingualism had fallen out of favor even in areas where it had thrived. In 1924 strict immigration quotas sharply reduced the number of new foreigners coming into the United States. For almost the next 40 years, bilingual education in U.S. schools was almost exclusively based on variations of immersion; students were taught in English no matter what their native tongue was, and those who did not master English were required to stay back in the same grade until they became proficient.

Landmark Legislation

Setting the Stage

Bilingual education in the United States was pushed back into the spotlight as a direct result of the 1959 revolution in Cuba. After Fidel Castro overthrew the dictatorship and established a Communist government, many middle- and upper-class Cubans fled to the United States. A large number of these refugees settled in Florida. Well-educated but with little in the way of resources, they were assisted quite generously by the federal and state governments.

Among this assistance was ESL instruction, provided by the Dade County (Florida) Public Schools. In addition, the school district launched a "Spanish for Spanish Speakers" program. In 1963, a bilingual education program was introduced at the Coral Way Elementary School in Miami. Directed by both U.S. and Cuban educators, the program began in the first through third grades. U.S. and Cuban students received a half day of English and a half day of Spanish instruction; at lunch time and recess and during music and art classes the groups were mixed together. Within three years the district was able to report benefits for both groups of students, who were now not only bilingual but also bicultural. This was no accident: the goal of the Coral Way initiative was to promote exactly this level of fluency.

The Civil Rights Act (1964)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not address bilingual education directly, but it opened an important door. Title VI of the Act specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. What this means, among other aspects, is that school districts that receive federal aid are required to ensure that minority students are getting the same access to programs as non-minorities. This minority group includes language minority (LM) students, defined as students who live in a home in which a language other than English is spoken. (Although some LM students are fluent in English, many are classified as LEP.) Title VI's critical role in bilingualism would be made clear a decade later in the Lau v. Nichols case.

Bilingual Education Act (1968)

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968 was another important step for bilingual education. In particular, Title VII of that act, known as the Bilingual Education Act, established federal policy for bilingual education. Citing its recognition of "the special educational needs of the large numbers children of limited English-speaking ability in the United States," the Act stipulated that the federal government would provide financial assistance for innovative bilingual programs. Funding would be provided for the development of such programs and for implementation, staffing and staff training, and long-term program maintenance.

Title VII has been amended several times since its establishment, and it was reauthorized in 1994 as part of the Improving America's Schools Act. The basic goal has remained the same: access to bilingual programs for children of limited means.

Lau v. Nichols

Probably the most important legal event for bilingual education was the Lau v. Nichols case, which was brought against the San Francisco Unified School District by the parents of nearly 1,800 Chinese students. It began as a discrimination case in 1970 when a poverty lawyer decided to represent a Chinese student who was failing in school because he could not understand the lessons and was given no special assistance. The school district countered that its policies were not discriminatory because it offered the same instruction to all students regardless of national origin. The lack of English proficiency was not the district's fault.

Lower courts ruled in favor of the San Francisco schools, but in 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs. In his opinion, Justice William O. Douglas stated simply that "there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education." The Court cited Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, noting that the students in question fall into the protected category established therein.

What Lau v. Nichols did not do was establish a specific bilingual policy. Individual school districts were responsible for taking "affirmative steps" toward reaching the goal of providing equal educational opportunities for all students.

State and Local Initiatives

In the 1960s there were no state bilingual programs; many states actually had English-only instruction laws on their books. After the Civil Rights Act and the Bilingual Education Act, states began to take more initiative. In 1971, Massachusetts became the first state to establish a bilingual mandate. Under this mandate, any school that had 20 or more students of the same language background was required to implement some sort of bilingual program.

A decade later, 11 more states had passed bilingual education laws, and an additional 19 offered some sort of legislative efforts in that direction. Today, bilingual or ESL education is offered in some form by every state. Not surprisingly, those states with the highest concentration of immigrants (New York, California, Texas, Florida) tend to have the most comprehensive programs. In fact, according to the most recent data from the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (NCBE), 18 of the 20 urban school districts with the highest LEP enrollment are in one of these four states. Some states fund all bilingual education programs; others fund only bilingual or only ESL programs.

It should be noted that bilingual needs can differ widely from state to state or district to district. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Spanish-speaking students make up nearly three-quarters of all LEP students in the United States. But in a district in which the predominant foreign language is Chinese, Vietnamese, or Hindi, the needs would of course be geared toward those languages. Local schools can create effective bilingual programs based on their specific needs. At the William Barton Rogers School in Boston, for example, a transitional program for middle-school LEP students who speak Vietnamese has met with success; likewise, a program for elementary school students in the Madawaska School District in Maine has been successful with French-speaking students.

Because each state's needs are different, and because those needs are subject to change, the best way to get comprehensive and up-to-date information on each state's initiatives is to contact individual state education departments (see below).

Grants and Programs

Obtaining information about bilingual grants, programs, and other initiatives is much easier today than it was in the past thanks to the Internet. Federal, state, and local government agencies offer a surprising variety of information on their web sites. Those who do not own a computer can access these sites at any local public library. Following is a sampling of what is available.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (OBEMLA) is in charge of awarding Title VII grants to both state and local education agencies. There are 12 types of discretionary grants, which cover training, development, implementation, school reform programs, and foreign language instruction. These grants are awarded only to "education-related organizations." Individuals are not eligible for Title VII grants. Those interested in applying for a Title VII grant can obtain the necessary information by visiting OBEMLA's web site ( OBEMLA)

A good beginning resource for anyone who wishes to find out about programs, grants, and other information on bilingual education and bilingual initiatives is the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (NCBE). Funded by OBEMLA, this organization collects and analyzes information and also provides links to other organizations. The NCBE web site ( is a comprehensive starting point.

Each state's Department of Education provides information on its statewide and local bilingual initiatives; the easiest way to find this information is to visit individual state education department web sites. Also, large cities such as New York, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco provide information on their web sites about their comprehensive bilingual programs.

Additional Resources

Bilingual Education: A Sourcebook. Alba M. Ambert and Sarah E. Melendez, Garland Publishing, 1985.

Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice. Third Edition. James Crawford, Bilingual Educational Services, Inc., 1995.

Bilingual Education: Issues and Strategies. Amado M. Padilla, Halford M. Fairchild, and Concepc.on M. Valadez, editors, Sage Publications, 1990.

Learning in Two Languages: From Conflict to Consensus in the Reorganization of Schools. Gary Imhoff, editor, Transaction Publishers, 1990.


Center for Applied Linguistics

4646 40th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20016 USA
Phone: (202) 362-0700
Fax: (202) 362-3740
Primary Contact: Donna Christian, President

National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE)

1220 L Street, NW, Suite 605
Washington, DC 20005 USA
Phone: (202) 898-1829
Fax: (202) 789-2866
Primary Contact: Delia Pompa, Executive Director

National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (NCBE)

The George Washington University
Center for the Study of Language and Education
2121 K Street, Suite 260
Washington, DC 20037 USA Phone: (202) 467-0867
Fax: (800) 531-9347
Primary Contact: Minerva Gorena, Director

National Education Association (NEA)

1201 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036 USA
Phone: (202) 833-4000
Fax: (202) 822-7170
Primary Contact: Robert F. Chase, President

National multicultural Institute (NMCI)

3000 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 438
Washington, DC 20008 USA
Phone: (202) 483-0700
Fax: (202) 483-5233
URL: http://www.nmci,org
Primary Contact: Elizabeth Pathy Salett, President

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)

700 South Washington Street, Suite 200
Alexandria, VA 22314 USA
Phone: (703) 836-0774
Fax: (703) 836-7864
Primary Contact: Charles Amorosino, Executive Director

U.S. Department of Education

Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (OBEMLA)

400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202 USA
Phone: (202) 205-5463
Fax: (202) 205-8737
Primary Contact: Art Love, Acting Director

Bilingual Education

views updated May 08 2018

Bilingual Education

On June 2, 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, a measure designed to eliminate bilingual education, the use of another language along with English, in their public schools. In the preceding two decades there had been many other efforts to do away with bilingual education. The subject is a lightning rod of controversy and one of the most recognizable issues in what commentators have termed the nation's "culture wars." Its history is as controversial as its practice. One central question is whether or not the United States had a true "bilingual tradition." Another is to what degree bilingual education represented movements toward either assimilation or ethnic maintenance.

Bilingual education goes back as far as the colonial period in the United States. Franciscan missionaries from California to Texas systematically used indigenous languages in translating and teaching the Catholic catechism to Native Americans. In the English-speaking colonies before the American Revolution and up through the early Republic, a myriad of ethnic groups, especially Germans, patronized bilingual schools, although influential thinkers and nationalists such as Noah Webster and Benjamin Franklin opposed them because they feared linguistic heterogeneity.

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of significant pro-bilingualism legislation, particularly for German speakers. In the 1830s, for example, the state of Ohio constitutionally guaranteed German-English bilingual education to local communities that wanted it. States such as Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin also protected German bilingual education through statutory or constitutional means. Cities such as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and St. Louis operated large, public bilingual programs for German Americans. Historian Heinz Kloss links the bilingual education of the past with that of today and sees it as evidence of a national bilingual tradition. Several historians defend this interpretation through focused, regional studies. Other scholars criticize this contention, holding instead that it was a disorganized phenomenon and not representative of a true bilingual tradition.

While German Americans were certainly the most influential nineteenth-century practitioners of bilingual education, many other groups were also involved. Though often relegated to private bilingual schools due to their lack of political influence, Czechs, Italians, Poles, Mexicans, and others established bilingual programs when they deemed them necessary, usually because of a belief that the public schools were culturally intolerant. Most immigrants wanted their children to speak English, and preferred bilingual to completely non-English schools. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Mexican Americans utilized both public and private bilingual schools, particularly in New Mexico and Texas, which had recently been acquired from Mexico. At this time the state of Louisiana constitutionally protected bilingual instruction for its native French speakers. Chicago's Catholic schools implemented bilingual education for Poles at the turn of the century, with Americanization as the goal. Indeed, one of bilingual education's most important rationales among non-ethnic educators was the belief that it furthered Americanization by making public schools more desirable to ethnic parents and by ensuring some level of English instruction.

This varied, hard-to-define bilingual tradition in nineteenth-century America was the product of a Jeffersonian society committed to principles of local, limited government and undertaken at the behest of the ethnic communities themselves. These ethnic epicenters, sometimes called island communities, were targeted by both the Progressive and Americanization movements in the twentieth century. Progressives advocated centralized control of educational decision making and wanted to standardize the teaching of non-English-speaking children using an English-Only pedagogy. Traditional bilingual methods depended upon literacy in a foreign language for the ultimate acquisition of English. However, English-Only entailed all-English instruction for non-English speakers; not one foreign language word could be used in the lessons. Violation of these rules meant physical punishment and possibly expulsion for students. For teachers it entailed incarceration, fines, and loss of certification. The Americanization movement during the hysteria of World War I resulted in the criminalization of bilingual education. Though the Wilson administration discussed outlawing all German in the nation's public schools, it settled for federal directives to the states urging replacement of bilingual education with English-Only. States pursued this to extremes. But in Meyer v. Nebraska in 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court grudgingly overturned a Nebraska law banning all foreign languages in private institutions.

English-Only pedagogy and IQ testing became key legal and educational justifications for segregated schools. Despite a brief flirtation with foreign languages during World War II, English-Only remained the nation's official pedagogical approach for non-English speakers well into the 1960s. By then scholars had begun to question English-Only's pedagogical assumptions. Also, ethnic activists, especially Mexican Americans, brought increasing legal and political pressure to bear against English-Only's segregating effect on their children. These unrelated forces culminated in the modern bilingual education movement.

The Bilingual Education Actpassed in late 1967 and signed early in 1968represented bilingual education's rebirth in the United States. It was signed by Lyndon Johnson, the only American president with experience in teaching non-English-speaking children: during the 1928-1929 academic year, the young Johnson taught impoverished Mexican Americans in Cotulla, Texas (ironically he taught his children using English-Only). Bilingual education's growth during the 1970s was aided by its utility as an affirmative curricular tool in desegregation cases. In 1970 the Office of Civil Rights in the Nixon Justice Department ruled that grouping children in so-called "special" or "educationally retarded" classes on the basis of language was a violation of their civil rights. Spurred by Chinese-American parents, the Supreme Court ruled four years later in Lau v. Nichols that schools were obligated to offer non-English-speaking children equal educational opportunity, in this case bilingual education.

However, bilingual education was never uniformly accepted. By the late 1970s a significant backlash against it developed among serious intellectuals and nativist groups. The Reagan administration actively sought to discredit bilingual education by promoting English as a Second Language (ESL) as a better option. This politicization escalated in the 1990s, culminating in California's Proposition 227. In the early twenty-first century, bilingual education remains a hot-button political issue with an indisputably rich and meaningful history in the United States.

See also: Education, United States; Literacy.


Crawford, James. 1999. Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice, 4th ed. Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services.

Davies, Gareth. 2002. "The Great Society after Johnson: The Case of Bilingual Education." Journal of American History 88:1405-1429.

Finkelman, Paul. 1996. "German American Victims and American Oppressors: The Cultural Background and Legacy of Meyer v. Nebraska. " In Law and the Great Plains: Essays on the Legal History of the Heartland, ed. John R. Wunder. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Heath, Shirley Brice. 1981. "English in Our National Heritage." In Language in the U.S.A., ed. Charles A. Ferguson and Shirley Brice Heath. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kloss, Heinz. 1977. The American Bilingual Tradition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Leibowitz, Arnold H. 1971. Educational Policy and Political Acceptance: The Imposition of English as the Language of Instruction in American Schools. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

San Miguel, Guadalupe, Jr. 1984. "Conflict and Controversy in the Evolution of Bilingual Education in the United StatesAn Interpretation." Social Science Quarterly 65: 508-518.

Schlossman, Steven L. 1983. "Is There an American Tradition of Bilingual Education? German in the Public Elementary Schools, 1840-1919." American Journal of Education 91:139-186.

Tamura, Eileen H. 1994. Americanization, Acculturation, and Ethnic Identity: The Nisei Generation in Hawaii. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Wiebe, Robert H. 1967. The Search for Order, 1877-1920. New York: Hill and Wang.

Carlos Kevin Blanton

Bilingualism/Bilingual Education

views updated Jun 27 2018

Bilingualism/Bilingual education

Use of a language other than English in public school classrooms.

The language rights of ethnic minorities in the United States have been a source of public controversy for close to two decades. The 1970s saw record levels of immigration, bringing an estimated 4 million legal and 8 million illegal immigrants into the country. To accommodate this dramatic surge in the nation's population of foreign language speakers, language assistance has been mandated on the federal, state, and local levels in areas ranging from voting and tax collection to education, social services, disaster assistance, and consumer rights. Today Massachusetts offers driver's license tests in 24 languages; residents of California can choose one of six different languages when they vote; street signs in some parts of Miami are printed in both English and Spanish; and classroom instruction is taught in 115 different languages in New York City schools. Altogether, over 300 languages are spoken in the United States. As of 1990,31.8 million Americans spoke a language other than English at home, and the country's population included6.7 million non-English speakers. Nationwide, one-third of the children enrolled in urban schools speak a language other than English at home as their first language. Around 2.6 million schoolchildren throughout the country do not speak English at all.

Organized opposition to bilingualism, which collectively became known as the English-Only movement, began in the 1980s. In 1980 voters in Dade County, Florida, designated English as their official language. The following year, U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa of California introduced a constitutional amendment to make English the country's official language. Two influential English-Only lobbying groups were formed: U.S. English, in 1983, and English First, in 1986. In 1986, with the passage of Proposition 63, English became the official language of California. By the mid-1990s, 22 states had passed similar measures. In August 1996, the U.S. House of Representatives, by a margin of 259-169, passed a bill to make English the official language of the federal government. (However, President Bill Clinton vowed to veto the bill if it passed the Senate.) Observers attribute the English-Only movement to backlash against immigration and affirmative action, spurred by fear of competition for jobs and resentment of government spending on bilingual programs.

The government program that has drawn the most fire is bilingual education, which costs taxpayers an estimated $200 million a year in federal funds and billions of dollars in state and local expenditures. Bilingual education programs, which allow students to pursue part of their study in their first language and part in English, were first mandated by Congress in 1968. The constitutionality of bilingual education was upheld in a 1974 Supreme Court ruling affirming that the city of San Francisco had discriminated against 18,000 Chinese-American students by failing to make special provisions to help them overcome the linguistic barriers they faced in school. However, the court did not specify what these provisions should be, and educators have evolved several different methods of instruction for students with first languages other than English. With the immersion (or "sink or swim") approach, nearly all instruction is in English, and the students are expected to pick up the language through intensive exposure. If the teacher is bilingual, the students may be allowed to ask questions in their native language, but the teacher is supposed to answer them in English. The English as a Second Language (ESL) approach, often used in a class where students speak more than one foreign language, takes a more gradual approach to mastering English, using it in conjunction with the student's first language. English-only instruction may be offered, but only in some, rather than all, classes.

The remaining methods rely more heavily on the student's first language. Even though, technically, all teaching methods aimed at meeting the needs of foreign language speakers are considered bilingual education, participants in debates about bilingual education often single out the following methods as targets of praise or criticism. In Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE), students study English but are taught all other academic subjects in their native languages until they are considered ready to switch to English. In some cases, bilingual teachers also help the students improve their skills in their native language. Bilingual/bicultural programs use the students' native languages not only to teach them the standard curriculum but also for special classes about their ethnic heritage and its history and culture. Two-way or dual language programs enroll students from different backgrounds with the goal of having all of them become bilingual, including those who speak only English. For example, Spanish-speaking children may learn English while their English-speaking classmates learn Spanish.

Critics of bilingual education (or of those methods that rely heavily on the students' native languages) claim that it fails to provide children with an adequate knowledge of English, thus disadvantaging them academically, and they cite high dropout rates for Hispanic teenagers, the group most likely to have received instruction in their native language. They accuse school systems of continuing to promote bilingual programs to protect the jobs of bilingual educators and receive federal funding allocated for such programs. As evidence of this charge, they cite barriers placed in the way of parents who try to remove their children from bilingual programs. Hispanic parents in New York City have claimed that their children are being railroaded into bilingual programs by a system that requires all children with Spanish surnames, as well as children of any nationality who have non-English-speaking family members, to take a language proficiency exam. Children scoring in the bottom 40% are then required to enroll in bilingual classes even if English is the primary language spoken at home. Critics of bilingual instruction also cite a 1994 New York City study that reported better results for ESL instruction than for methods that taught children primarily in their native languages.

In spite of the criticism it has aroused, bilingual education is strongly advocated by many educators. Defenders cite a 1991 study endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences stating that children who speak a foreign language learn English more rapidly and make better overall academic progress when they receive several years of instruction in their native language. A later study, conducted at George Mason University, tracked 42,000 children who had received bilingual instruction and reported that the highest scores on standardized tests in the eleventh grade were earned by those students who had had six years of bilingual education. Programs with two way bilingual education have had particularly impressive results. Oyster Bilingual Elementary School in Washington, D.C., (whose student body is 58% Hispanic, 26% white, 12% black, and 4% Asian) is admiringly cited as a model for bilingual education. Its sixth graders read at a ninth-grade level and have tenth-grade-level math skills. Experts on both sides of the controversy agree that for any teaching method to be successful, the teaching must be done by qualified instructors equipped with adequate teaching materials in appropriately assigned classes with a reasonable ratio of students to teachers.

Further Reading

Chavez, Linda. Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Crawford, James. Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of "English-Only." Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1992.

Harlan, Judith. Bilingualism in the United States: Conflict and Controversy. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991.

Lang, Paul. The English Language Debate: One Nation, One Language! Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.

Porter, Rosalie Pedalino. Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education. New York: Basic Books, 1990.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.

Simon, Paul. The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis. New York: Continuum, 1980.

Further Information

Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, Inc. (META). 240A Elm Street, Suite 22, Somerville, MA 02144.

National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE). Union Center Plaza, 1220 L Street NW, Suite 605, Washington, DC 20005.

U.S. English. 818 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006.

Bilingual Education

views updated May 21 2018

Bilingual Education

The United States has always been home to significant numbers of non-English speakers. Sometimes the language differences have been tolerated by English-speaking Americans, but not always. In the first half of

the nineteenth century, for example, the most prevalent language next to English was German. In the 1850s, bilingual schools (schools in which two languages were taught) teaching in German and English were operating in Baltimore, Maryland ; Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio ; Indianapolis, Indiana ; Milwaukee, Wisconsin ; and St. Louis, Missouri . Similarly, Louisiana , with its large French-speaking population, allowed bilingual instruction in its schools. (See New France .) Several states in the Southwest had Spanish as well as English instruction. Hundreds of thousands of children in the United States were educated in a language other than English.

Anti-immigrant movement

Around 1900, anti-immigrant sentiments in the country increased. Several states passed laws against teaching in other languages. Immigrant children who did not speak English began to have a hard time in the public schools. In 1908, only 13 percent of the immigrant children enrolled in New York City schools at age twelve were likely to go on to high school, as opposed to 32 percent of native-born students. This trend was mirrored across the country as non-English-speaking immigrant children, not understanding the language spoken in their classrooms, fell further and further behind.

During World War I (1914–18), an intense wave of nationalism (pride and loyalty to one's own country, sometimes in an excessive way) swept the country. It reinforced the negative reaction of many Americans to the large number of immigrants entering the country. By 1925, thirty-seven states had passed laws requiring instruction in English regardless of the dominant language of the region. This opposition to bilingual education continued into the 1950s. Many children whose native language was not English received a very poor education in the public school system.

Federal government support

After the Cuban revolution of 1959, waves of Cubans fled to South Florida . Florida's Coral Way school district established the first state-supported program in decades to instruct students in Spanish, their native language, thereby easing their transition to English. The bilingual program provided all students, Anglo and Cuban, instruction in both Spanish and English with excellent results. With the success of the Coral Way project, state and local government involvement in language education became accepted.

The federal government soon took up the cause, starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 , which prohibited discrimination in education, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which funded schools and provided help for disadvantaged students. In 1968, after considerable debate, Congress passed a bill that amended (modified) the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Under the amendment, the federal government would provide funding for bilingual education to school districts with a large proportion of non-English-speaking students who lived in poor neighborhoods. To receive funding, districts would be required to provide instruction in a student's native language until the child could demonstrate competence in English. The federal government put hundreds of millions of dollars into bilingual education programs nationwide by the mid-1970s.

Supreme Court support

In 1974, the Supreme Court gave its support to bilingual education in Lau v. Nichols. The ruling states that school districts with a substantial number of non-English-speaking students must take steps to overcome the students’ language differences. After that ruling, the federal government was able to force school districts to initiate bilingual education plans. These Lau plans greatly expanded the number of bilingual programs across the country. They set standards to determine which students qualified for inclusion in a program and when they could be allowed (or forced) to exit. During this period, test scores repeatedly showed that non-English-speaking students who participated in well-designed bilingual programs consistently performed at the same level as their English-speaking classmates.

English immersion

None of the new acts or policies clearly addressed the goals of bilingual programs. Should the programs aim to send the student quickly back to regular English-language classes, or should they take a slower approach, allowing the student to maintain good grades and stay up to standard with his or her age level in school? Different programs addressed these questions in their own ways, and the lack of clarity contributed to a conflict that lasted into the 2000s. By the 1980s, a growing number of opponents of bilingual education believed that, rather than speeding immigrants into the English-speaking mainstream, bilingual education was causing them to hold onto their native languages and cultures. The critics considered this undesirable. Studies showed that some bilingual programs were allowing students to remain in bilingual classes longer than three years and were not teaching them sufficient English to function in mainstream classrooms. In the early 1980s, the federal government quietly withdrew its support for native-language instruction programs.

In 1984, the government began providing funding for English immersion programs—programs that placed non-English-speaking students in all-English classes, forcing them to learn English in a hurry or be left behind. Several studies in the mid-1980s showed that the performance of the limited-English students in the English immersion programs declined. Meanwhile, public attitudes in California , with its rapidly growing foreign-born population, became increasingly hostile to bilingual programs. In 1998, California adopted an English-only requirement for instruction in all its schools. Arizona and several other states followed.

Bilingual education remained controversial in the 2000s. Advocates contended that non-English-speaking children will receive little or no education unless they are taught in their own language during the years when they are first learning English. With a poor start due to language difference, students are much more likely to drop out of school and consequently face low-paying jobs and poverty in the future. Opponents argue that students in bilingual programs may not be motivated to learn English as well as they should and will therefore not be able to secure good jobs later in life. They argue that the government should not use its funds to help non-native people preserve their cultures in the United States.

Bilingual Education

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bilingual Education

Bilingual education developed into a particularly contentious topic for defining American identity in the twentieth century. While federal legislation since the 1960s has recognized the United States as a multilingual nation, the professed long-range goal of institutionalized bilingual education was not that students should achieve bilingualism but proficiency in English. The vast majority of bilingual education programs were considered "transitional," functioning to introduce younger students with limited English-speaking ability into the general education curriculum where English served historically as the language of instruction. Many bilingual programs were taught principally either in English or in the primary language of the student. However, by the end of the twentieth century, federally funded programs had begun to favor instruction in both English and the primary language, an apparent departure from the goal of achieving proficiency in a single language.

The country's continued difficulty through the late twentieth century in educating immigrant children, mostly from Spanish-speaking countries, forced the federal legislature to institutionalize bilingual education. Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act (1968), providing the first federal funds for bilingual education. The federal government elaborated its guidelines in the amended Bilingual Education Act of 1974, the same year the Supreme Court rendered its landmark Lau vs. Nichols decision, ruling that instructing students in a language they do not understand violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

"Bilingual" was often interpreted as "bicultural," suggesting that the question of bilingual education belonged to a broader debate over the efficacy of a polyglot society. The discussion in the United States focused on the progress of social mobility and the development of a unique American culture. For many, proficiency in English appeared to facilitate social advancement and incorporation into a mainstream culture despite that culture's multifaceted character. The letters of J. Hector St. Jean de Crévecoeur in the late eighteenth century and Alexis de Tocqueville's published travels Democracy in America in 1835 contributed to an understanding of American culture as a "melting pot" of ethnicity. This identity became increasingly complex with the country's continued expansion through the nineteenth century and increasingly vexed with the rise of nationalism in the post bellum era. The nationalist urgency to homogenize the nation after the Civil War, accompanied by notions of Anglo-Saxon supremacy and the advent of eugenics, forced further eruptions of nationalist sentiment, including loud, jingoist cries for a single national language after the first World War. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, efforts to empower underrepresented communities contributed to an increased public interest in multiculturalism and ethnocentric agendas. A dramatic increase in immigration from Spanish-speaking countries during the second half of the twentieth century finally motivated the United States to institutionalize bilingual education.

But the strong opposition to the bilingual education legislation of the early 1970s, expressed in the influential editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times between 1975 and 1976, suggested that bilingual programs never enjoyed overwhelming public support. The articulate arguments of Richard Rodriguez, an editor at the Pacific News Service and author of Hunger for Memory (1982), contributed to this opposition by distinguishing between private (primary language) and public (English) language while influential figures like Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., author of The Disuniting of America (1992), documented an increased national disenchantment with multiculturalism and bilingual education.

Discussions of bilingual education more often centered on Latino communities in metropolitan areas such as Miami, Los Angeles, and New York. But the debate was not exclusively Latino. The Lau vs. Nichols verdict, which involved a Chinese-speaking student, along with the advent of post-Vietnam War Asian immigration, suggested that the debate was relevant to other communities in the country. Similar interests were present in localized but nationally observed efforts to incorporate the language of a surrounding community into a school's curriculum. A particularly contentious and widely publicized debate arose over "Ebonics" in Oakland, California, in the early 1990s. Due in part to increasing black nationalism among African American intellectuals, prominent national political figures such as Reverend Jesse Jackson endorsed the incorporation of the local dialect and vernacular variations of language into the curriculum, while figures such as Harvard sociologist Cornel West and Harvard literary and social critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., suggested that such programs lead to black ghettoization.

California showcased a national concern about bilingual education at the end of the twentieth century. Bilingual education became increasingly contentious in the state in the late 1990s with the passage of a proposition eliminating bilingual instruction. Approval of the initiative occurred in the shadow of two earlier state propositions and a vote by the regents of University of California to effectively terminate Affirmative Action, acts widely perceived in some underrepresented communities as attacks directed at Latino and immigrant communities. Bilingual programs enjoyed public support in cities with wide and long established minority political bases, such as Miami, where they where viewed as beneficial to developing international economies, but California continued to focus the debate primarily on social and cultural concerns.

—Roberto Alvarez

Further Reading:

Lau vs. Nichols. United States Supreme Court, 1974.

Porter, Rosalie Pedalino. Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education. New York, Basic, 1990.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston, David R. Godine, 1982.

Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. The Disuniting of America. New York, Norton, 1992.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 1835.

Education, Bilingual

views updated Jun 08 2018


EDUCATION, BILINGUAL. Bilingual education refers to an educational program in which both a native language and a second language are taught as subject matter and used as media of instruction for academic subjects. In the United States the tradition of public bilingual education began during the 1840s as a response to the many children who spoke German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Swedish, and other languages. As a result of the nativism of World War I and the adverse popular reaction to the large number of non-English-speaking immigrants entering the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, restrictive laws prohibiting instruction in languages other than English brought this educational practice to a halt.

Renewed interest developed, however, with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1968 Congress provided funding for bilingual programs in Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the Bilingual Education Act. In Lau v. Nichols (1974) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that eighteen hundred Chinese students in the San Francisco School District were being denied a "meaningful education" when they received English-only instruction and that public schools had to provide special programs for students who spoke little or no English. The number of students fitting this description increased dramatically toward the end of the twentieth century. Since 1989, for example, they went from 2,030,451 to 4,148,997 at the end of the century, representing an increase from 5 percent to almost 9 percent of the school-age population. These children come from more than one hundred language groups. Of those served by special language programs, almost half are enrolled in bilingual education programs; the others are served by English-as-a-second-language or regular education programs. In the 1990s an increasing number of English-speaking children sought to learn a second language by enrolling in enrichment bilingual education programs. Title VII appropriation for special language programs for both minority language and mainstream groups rose from $7.5 million in 1969 to $117 million in 1995.

The effectiveness of such programs has been much debated. Opponents have claimed that promoting languages other than English would result in national dis-unity, inhibit children's social mobility, and work against the rise of English as a world language. Advocates propose that language is central to the intellectual and emotional growth of children. Rather than permitting children to languish in classrooms while developing their English, proponents claim that a more powerful long-term strategy consists of parallel development of intellectual and academic skills in the native language and the learning of English as a second language. Proponents also argue that immigrants and other non-English-speaking students have valuable resources to offer this multicultural nation and the polyglot world. While in 1999 forty-three states and the District of Columbia had legislative provisions for bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs, the citizens of California and Arizona voted to restrict the use of languages other than English for instruction. The growing anti-bilingual-education movement had similar proposals on the ballot in other states at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


August, Diane, and Kenji Hakuta. Education of Language-minority Children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1998.

Baker, Colin, and Sylvia Prys Jones. Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters, 1998.

Brisk, Maria Estela. Bilingual Education: From Compensatory to Quality Schooling. 2d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2001.

Maria EmiliaTorres-Guzman

See alsoSpanish Language .

Bilingual Education

views updated Jun 11 2018


Bilingual education programs in schools aim to teach students to listen, comprehend, speak, read, and write in a language other than their native tongue. This is done most effectively when use of their primary language is encouraged as well. Students in bilingual classes acquire greater skills and acquire them more quickly when they continue to practice both languages. This also increases their effectiveness in the other core classroom subjects and helps them to develop social competencies. A language may be acquired by being in the environment where the language is spoken and participating in that cultural setting, or it may be learned in a classroom with field techniques that allow practice in the new language. Therefore, one goal of bilingual education is to create an environment where students and their cultures are fully supported.



Baker, Colin. A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism. Clevedon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters, 2000.

Baker, Colin. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Clevedon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters, 1997.

Baker, Colin, and Sylvia Prys Jones. Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Clevedon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters, 1998.

Valdes, Guadalupe, and Richard Figueroa. Bilingualism and Testing:A Special Case of Bias. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1994.




views updated May 23 2018

BILINGUALISM. The capacity to make alternate (and sometimes mixed) use of two languages, in contrast to monolingualism or unilingualism and MULTILINGUALISM. In the social context of languages like English, especially in England and the US, the traditional tendency has been to consider the possession and use of one language the norm. Bilingualism, however, is at least as common as monolingualism; about half the world's population (some 2.5 bn people) is bilingual and kinds of bilingualism are probably present in every country in the world. See CANADIAN LANGUAGES, CODE-MIXING AND CODE-SWITCHING, HIGHLAND ENGLISH, IRISH ENGLISH, MAORI ENGLISH, WELSH ENGLISH.