Language for Some : The Hypocrisy in Language Acquisition Policy   

By: David Mendez

David Mendez Blog

Growing up, language was an emotionally confusing subject for me. My dad, an immigrant from Mexico, and my mom, a second generation Mexican-American, both spoke to us in English and Spanish. Many of my experiences with language are true for many second and even some first generation immigrants. 

For many Latinos in the U.S. who do not speak Spanish, the language can be a nuanced blend of guilt, embarrassment and insecurity. Guilt as the “Pocho” – a  term used to describe the lack of fluency one has in Spanish – of the family; embarrassment when one cannot  keep a conversation with their abuelita; and insecurity when at school your native language is not valued, so you hide it. Students respond to this in different ways, including limited classroom engagement, sitting by themselves during recess or assimilating into the “dominant” language and culture. 

I experienced all of these as the son and grandson of immigrants. As a bilingual and ESL teacher, I also saw my students struggle with it. As a result of my personal journey as a student and educator,  I became curious about how language acquisition is currently addressed in policy and how it can be improved.

What programs already exist? 

The two most common programs in our schools across the country today are Dual Language and Bilingual programs. Dual Language programs are often made up of native English speakers and students who speak the same foreign language being taught. Dual Language programs are meant to benefit all students because every child in a dual language program has the opportunity to learn both languages. I attended a Dual Language program until the 6th grade.

While there are many forms of Bilingual programs, typically these have  a phase out method. For instance, in a transitional bilingual program, students phase out of their native language and adopt English, usually within three to four years. The ultimate goal is for English Learners to join native English speakers in monolingual classes.

I taught in a transitional bilingual program. My students were all first and second generation immigrants and their first language was Spanish. The district’s goal was to transition students out of the bilingual program into mainstream monolingual classes. Students had up to four years to be in the program before “exiting” or in other terms being forced out of the program and into a monolingual classroom.

During my time as an educator, I had many students in their fourth year in the transitional bilingual program and still not reading on grade level in either language. Despite this, they would not receive necessary  support once they left the bilingual program at the arbitrary four year point. What kind of message does this send our children when they are left to sink or swim?

THE PROBLEM of bilingualism and multiculturalism traces back to centuries of cultural insensitivity and oppression. The United States has a history of trying to eradicate native languages. Examples of this can be seen as early as the imposition of English among Native Americans through the 20th century when the Burnett Act required all new immigrants to pass a literacy test. 

In 1968, these policies changed when the Bilingual Education Act was passed. This law is considered the most important piece of legislation in recognizing linguistic minority rights in the United States. My father was directly affected by this policy. As a 10 year old immigrant, the second youngest of 9 siblings, and a son of a single farmworker mother, he received ESL instruction. However the law did not require school districts to implement bilingual programs, but instead encouraged them to experiment with different programs by providing more funding that targeted low-income and non-English speaking students. One of the failures of this policy was not having an evaluation system to determine the success of such programs, leading to the Bilingual Education Act being amended.

Education policies dramatically affected and discriminated against minority populations for decades, especially those whose native language is not English. My mother, a second generation Mexican-American born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, faced similar discrimination. Just prior to when my mother was ready to attend elementary school, the Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools Benjamin Willis addressed overcrowding by placing trailers in the parking lot of mostly black schools, instead of integrating schools (WTTW News, 2013). During grade school, my mother chose to go by her middle name instead of her first name “Maria” so she would not be bullied. There were no schools embracing bilingualism or multiculturalism to make her feel more valued as a Mexican-American. 

Because of this fear, it was always English at school, Spanish at home. This sent the message that Spanish or any other language besides English is inferior and should ONLY be spoken behind closed doors.

The wave of anti-bilingualism policies reached its peak after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, President George W. Bush’s legislation on education. The law did not officially ban bilingual education programs, but with high stakes testing, English-only instruction was prioritized. Many states followed this implicit directive, including Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Bilingual Education Law

In 2002, Massachusetts voted on Question 2, a ballot initiative that replaced the existing transitional bilingual education program. The existing program required the school committee to establish a transitional bilingual education program for any 20 or more enrolled children of the same language group who could not do ordinary classwork in English and whose native language was not English or whose parents did not speak English.

Question Two passed with a 61% majority and required all public school children be taught all subjects in English and placed in English-only classrooms. The law required public schools to educate English Learners through a Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) program from which students should transition within a year. 

Notably, this law was voted on a year after 9/11, a time when patriotism and anti-immigration sentiments were in the air. Most people were fixated on English being the only valid language, which impacted how they voted. By September 2002, just a year after the 9/11 attacks, responses to a Gallup survey indicated those in favor of decreasing immigration had jumped to 54% from 41% a year earlier. 

Has sheltered English immersion worked in Massachusetts? 

Eliminating the transitional bilingual programs in Massachusetts has not resulted in significant gains for English Learners. The outcomes are extremely troubling. In the years following the end of transitional bilingual programs, the dropout rate for English Learners spiked. In addition, a 2009 state report, reported only about 20% of SEI students achieved proficiency, after five years in the program. It speaks to the misinformation of voters who in 2002 believed one year in a sheltered English immersion program would be enough to teach English Learners a new language.

Lawmakers realized this and in 2017, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a Bilingual Education Bill that allows local schools to tailor bilingual lesson plans for +90,000 English Learner students . The Language Opportunity for Our Kids Act, referred to as the LOOK Act, gives educators more flexibility including allowing students to be taught in their native language. 

Why does this matter?

There is much hypocrisy around language acquisition in the United States. Many agree learning multiple languages is an asset in the 21st century and there are countless cognitive benefits of learning more than one language. It forces the child to develop coping strategies that accelerate cognitive development. Furthermore, language learning correlates with higher academic achievement on standardized testing and there is evidence that shows language learners transfer skills from one language to another. But, who benefits? The White family who wants their child to learn a new language and culture because of all the benefits that come with it? What about the immigrant family who wants the same opportunity for their children? 

What should be done? 

We need to create programs that welcome students’ cultures and act upon bilingualism as a 21st century skill. It is time to acknowledge our country was built by immigrants. This needs to be reflected in our history textbooks and in the way we structure our education systems to support immigrant communities. As a country, it’s time we step away from the idea of speaking languages other than English as something to overcome, and begin to look at language as a resource for all students. There should be an enrichment and heritage approach to our teachings, where the aim is biliteracy and bilingualism as an extension of the minority language and culture into the community and nationally. A monolinguistic approach does nothing to support children if it simply affirms dominant culture. The U.S. has no official language and it is time we begin to live that out in policy. My hope is that my daughter can grow up in a country that embraces her language and culture, not suppresses it.

About David Mendez
A son and grandson of immigrants, David Mendez is a former teacher and current Outreach Director at a national education non-profit based in Boston. David earned his B.A. from Dominican University of California, his M.A.T from Relay Graduate School of Education and is an M.Ed. candidate at the University of Washington in Seattle. In his spare time David loves traveling, cooking, and spending time with his partner and their 12 month old daughter.