The Race-Driven History of Bilingual Education

In the Americas, people have long spoken many languages. After U.S.’s independence, the education system itself preserved select languages, depending upon social and racial sentiments of the time.

During the 19th century, bilingual programs in a variety of European languages had legal support. For instance, in 1839, Ohio passed a law permitting German-English bilingual schooling, and in 1847 Louisiana passed a law allowing French bilingual schools. However, not all communities received the same support.  Enslaved Africans were never permitted to speak their languages. Furthermore, the US Congress passed the first English-only act in 1864, prohibiting schools serving Native American students from teaching their native languages.

After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the U.S. saw an influx of Eastern and Southern European immigrants. Bilingual schools teaching Polish and Italian emerged albeit without legal support. Echoing the growing concerns of nativists, in 1915, President Roosevelt declared that it was “a crime to perpetuate differences of language in this country,” and by 1923, 34 states had passed English-only acts. 

It was only in 1965 that President Johnson reversed pro-assimilation legislation by providing funding for Bilingual Education. Today, the role of Dual Language Education (DLE) in social justice is clear as we know that it is the only English Learner program that closes the opportunity gap fully for English Learners and seeks the preservation of  students’ cultures and identities, both key elements of anti-racist education.  

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