The History of Bilingual Education

Instructor: Maggie Rouman

Maggie currently teaches post-secondary e-learning and assessment courses and has a bachelor's degree in special education and a master's degree in educational neuroscience.

Do you know how bilingual education started? Do you know what bilingual education is? Learn more about the history of bilingual education in the United States.

In the Beginning

How would you feel if you attended school and your teacher lectured in a different language than your native language? Do you think you could be successful as a student under those conditions, or would you prefer to be taught in your native tongue? Did you know that in Chicago in the 19th century, immigrant students had the opportunity to learn in their mother tongue? Instruction in German was common then because the earliest German schools had a religious focus, with the clergy providing instruction. By the late 19th century, new waves of Polish, Slavic, Greek and Italian immigrants settled in the major cities, such as Chicago. These immigrant groups also provided instruction in their native languages.

This prompted xenophobia or fear of foreigners or people from other countries. Socializing immigrants into the 'American' way of life, including teaching them to speak English in schools, became the trend. Americanization was rampant. Families encouraged their children to blend in and give up speaking their native languages. Eventually, bilingual education, or instruction in English and the student's native language, ceased.

It's Not Over

During the 1960s there was a bilingual education revival. After a variety of socially conscious programs had been established, the 1968 Bilingual Education Act was proposed. This piece of legislation allocated funds for innovative English language programs and gave poor Hispanic students equal and appropriate educational opportunities. This Act became the springboard for providing equal educational opportunities for all language minorities. In time, individual states created their own bilingual education legislation.

In 1974, the Supreme Court ruling Lau v. Nichols brought even more awareness to bilingual education. In this case, the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional to place Chinese students who weren't proficient in English in regular classrooms, since this was determined to violate their civil rights. This ruling further established the need for bilingual education.

Bilingual Education Expands

In the decades to come, bilingual education grew. Experimentation continued, as teachers explored different approaches to teaching bilingual students. New teacher training programs and student assessments were available. But because bilingual education was implemented before an adequate infrastructure of teacher education programs existed, program designers were confused about what bilingual education meant. Still, the bilingual education movement grew and changed.

By the end of the early 2000s, most states eliminated bilingual education programs in the students' native language, and only provided English language learners with specialized English instruction. Things changed in 2002 when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. This Act evened the playing field between poor, minority students and advantaged students, by creating new programs to support these students, and requiring that progress is continuously assessed. This affected the Bilingual Education Act, which was modified and renamed the English Language Acquisition Act.

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