The Intersection of Race and Language in Bilingual Education

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Language Hierarchy

“This is America… speak English!”  Anybody who, like me, speaks multiple languages or works in Dual Language has heard this nonsense. Since the earliest days of the United States being a sovereign nation, those with the greatest power in the United States were always those who primarily spoke English, and these people aimed to preserve their power by creating a hierarchy of languages with English at the top of the hierarchy much like Linnaeus created a hierarchy of races with White at the top of his hierarchy.  Even President John Adams, known for his anachronistic defense of women and African Americans, argued that English should be made the common, US language and that a language academy should be erected for that purpose.  However, in spite of John Adams’ and others’ obsession with English, it is by studying the unspoken language hierarchy in the United States rather than limiting ourselves to examining just the English-only movement that we can see how language and race have always been inextricably intertwined.

Early Bilingual Education

In the 18th century, White students were given legal protection to develop their skills in their native languages.  Hence, bilingual programs in a variety of European languages blossomed with 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. This of course is not to say that these laws were not passed following struggle. Just the fact that such laws were needed tells us that there was controversy behind these laws; however, that they were passed is significant in demonstrating support for White languages. In fact, in the 1870s, the US Commissioner of Education, William Torrey Harris, stated ”National memories and aspirations; family traditions, customs, and habits; moral and religious observances cannot be suddenly removed or changed without disastrously weakening the personality.’’ The federal government, thereby, supported Bilingual Education for White students.

On the other hand, communities of color did not receive the same support. Enslaved Africans were never permitted to speak their home languages. As enslaved African Americans developed a new language with English vocabulary and the grammar of African languages, the White man denigrated their speech as “broken English” rather than recognizing it as a rich new language, an act that continues to this day.  Furthermore, the US Congress passed the first English-only act in 1864, prohibiting schools serving Native American students from teaching students in their home languages.  In other words, the federal government did not support Bilingual Education for students of color.


In the late 1800s, Nativism began to grow stronger.  After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the U.S. blocked immigration from all Asian countries and thus, saw an influx of Eastern and Southern European immigrants. Bilingual schools teaching Polish and Italian emerged albeit without legal support. While Polish and Italians were arguably White, they were not the Western European Whites reflecting those in power.  Hence, their cultures and languages were not as acceptable as the cultures and languages of Western, European immigrants. Additionally adding to these anti-immigrant sentiments, there was a growing hatred of Germans in the Anglophone world due to the World Wars.  Hence, echoing the growing concerns of nativists, President Roosevelt, in 1919, declared that, “We have room for but one language here and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”  By 1923, 34 states had passed English-only acts.  

Civil Rights Movement

It was only in 1965 that President Johnson reversed pro-assimilation legislation by providing funding for Bilingual Education and opening up immigration to Asian and African countries at a large scale for the first time since the late 1800s.  However, the ostensible about face in language and immigration policies did not reflect a total change in attitudes.  Democrat Ted Kennedy assured his voter base that in spite of the change in laws, “The ethnic mix of this country will not be upset…(The immigration bill) will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and economically deprived nations of Africa and Asia.”  Hence, the need to protect the United States’ White identity continued. And in that vein of protecting the United States’ historical identity, bilingual programs that opened up in response to Johnson’s bill were largely transitional, aiming to support students as they learned English and then, subtract students’ home languages from their linguistic repertoires.

Dual Language Programs Today

Today, there is a blossoming of Dual Language Programs, but these programs, no matter how successful or how well established, are always endangered. 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 for Emergent Bilinguals and the only program that seeks the preservation of students’ cultures and identities, both key elements of an anti-racist education. But unless we can recognize the intersection of race and language, recognize the underlying racism that causes opponents to fight against Dual Language Education, and call out the racism, we will never adequately address the issues that keep children with home languages other than English from having the opportunity to maintain their linguistic identities.

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