The 21st Century Solution for Working with Non-English Speaking Students
Nowadays, it is certainly not uncommon to see children who speak a language other than English attend school. As an educator, you may wonder how we should handle linguistic diversity in our student populations.
We do not need to look too far to see that this is not a new question. The truth is that linguistic diversity has always existed in the United States, and with varying degrees of acceptance.
Language is associated with culture. For many ethnic groups, a decline in the use of the language of the homeland signals a decline in an understanding and acceptance of the culture. That’s why immigrants of the late 1800s and early 1900s established schools to ensure their children would learn their homeland language and culture, in addition to English and American culture. Schools were developed by Germans, Polish, Italians, French, and the Japanese, for example.
Organization of schools based on diverse languages and cultures continued until the 1890s, when continued development of these schools met with a wave of nativism in the United States. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were targets of an anti-immigrant sentiment that occurred along with a renewed sense of nationalism. Theodore Roosevelt drew attention to the need for English to be the primary language taught in schools, as a means for ensuring the stability of an American nationality. By 1924, laws were passed that restricted immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, and banned the immigration of Japanese. The 1920s and 1930s saw a severe decline in language schools. They were outlawed in some states and lacked the support of others.
The demand for students to speak only English in schools continued into the 1960s. In Texas, for example, students who were caught speaking Spanish anywhere in the school were given “Spanish detention,” and it was illegal for teachers to teach in any language other than English until 1973.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, protests and boycotts pressured school systems to include bilingual education. While funding was committed to bilingual education by the federal government and legislation was passed in California and Massachusetts, it was the famous Lau v. Nichols (1974) case that addressed discrimination against students who did not speak English. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was discrimination against the Chinese-speaking students to teach them in a language they could not understand.
Despite the fact that the U.S. government began funding bilingual education and several languages were supported across the country, the new legislation met with skepticism. Some were concerned about a form of linguistic segregation, where students who spoke a different language would continue to be separated from English-speaking students, even though they attended the same school. Others feared a potentially growing apartheid. Still others who favored an American melting-pot ideology supported the idea of teaching non-English speakers English, so they could then mix with the English-speaking students.
Although linguistic diversity has a long-standing presence in the United States, schools continue to wrestle with how best to address the array of issues associated with students whose English is limited or nonexistent.
In today’s culture, what do you think is the best way to work with linguistic diversity? Leave a comment below.