History Of Bilingual Education Essay

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Bilingual education, or instruction in more than one language, has occurred throughout history and around the world. A review of that history reveals that practices and beliefs related to languages in education are intricately connected to attitudes toward linguistic and cultural diversity, and especially toward indigenous, ethnic, and foreign groups. Perhaps it is for these reasons that bilingual education inspires controversy and raises questions not only of pedagogy, but also of politics and ideology.

The history of bilingual education is not a steady movement in a single direction; rather, there is a constant flux of policies, practices, and ideology. Proponents of bilingual education stress the academic, cognitive, and cultural advantages that accrue to individuals and to society when children maintain and develop their home language and attain academic competence in another language as well. Opponents of bilingual education stress the need for cultural and linguistic assimilation, and posit that time spent learning in a minority language detracts from academic and linguistic development in the majority language. Struggles between these two views, as well as conflicting beliefs about the nature of diversity and the goals of education, are sure to continue. This entry looks at the development of bilingual education over the course of U.S. history and reviews contrasting international approaches.

Program Descriptions

The term bilingual education is popularly used for a wide variety of educational models, including some in which the only “bilingual” component is that some or most of the students are bilingual. This entry will consider educational settings in which more than one language is used in instruction, but this definition too covers a wide range of practices and goals.

Bilingual programs around the world serve immigrant and indigenous speakers of minority languages, as well as children of middle-class and affluent parents who seek bilingualism for enrichment. Among different types of programs, an important distinction is between transitional and maintenance bilingual education. In transitional programs, the use of native languages is encouraged only in the short term, for the purpose of helping students learn the majority language (i.e., English in the United States). By contrast, in maintenance programs the goal is not only second language acquisition, but also language and literacy skills in the native language. One type of maintenance program is the dual-language or two-way model, in which both languages are used, often (and ideally) with approximately half the students proficient in one language, and the other half proficient in the other, with both groups learning language and content in both languages.

Yet another type of bilingual education is heritage language instruction, in which lessons are delivered in a minority language, often one that is in danger of extinction. It is significant that the terms majority language and minority language refer not to the relative number of speakers, but rather, to the relative power and dominance of the speakers of that language.

U.S. History

Although bilingual education was common in the early history of the United States, it was virtually eliminated in the first half of the twentieth century, until a renaissance of bilingual education occurred in the 1960s both in the United States and around the world.

Early Bilingualism

As early as 1694, German-speaking Americans were operating German-language schools in Philadelphia, some bilingual, some monolingual German. By the mid-1800s, schools in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and St. Louis used both German and English in instruction. The first law in America pertaining to language use was enacted in Ohio in 1839, authorizing instruction in English, German, or both languages, according to parents’ requests. Similar laws were passed soon after in other places. In 1847, Louisiana adopted the same law, substituting French for German. The Territory of New Mexico, two years after its annexation in 1848, authorized Spanish-English bilingual education.

Bilingual education grew in the 1800s in the United States. In the second half of the 1800s, schools in German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Polish, and Italian were set up by communities in several additional states. A surprising statistic is that in the year 1900, 600,000 American children—about 4 percent of the elementary school population at the time—received instruction either partly or exclusively in German. While this openness to other languages was at least partially motivated by competition for students between public and private schools, it also reflects tolerance of linguistic and ethnic diversity. Acceptance of children’s home culture and language was generally believed to be emotionally and culturally advantageous to children, and the most effective route to their cultural and linguistic assimilation.

An English-Only Movement

This is not to say that such beliefs were held universally, as English-only laws were promoted as well. Both Illinois and Wisconsin adopted English-only laws in 1889, and this English-monolingual approach gained momentum at the turn of the twentieth century. One reason for the shift in attitude at that time is that the number of new immigrants increased dramatically. These new arrivals (largely Jews and Italians) were unlike previous groups, whose appearance and customs had been similar to those of other European Americans. In addition, the new immigrants headed not to the frontier, but to cities, overwhelming public schools and engendering fears of foreigners as well as increasing calls for integration and assimilation. English proficiency came to be seen as a sign of political loyalty to the United States, and the loss of home language and culture was seen as part of the Americanization process.

In 1919, the Americanization Department of the U.S. Bureau of Education adopted a resolution recommending that states prescribe that all schools, public and private, conduct instruction in English. With the entry of the United States into World War I, anti-German feeling increased, and the pressure for English monolingualism grew. Schools were viewed as instruments of assimilation, with no role for other cultures or for languages other than English. Interest in learning foreign languages declined as well.

By 1923, thirty-four states had enacted laws requiring that English be the only language of instruction in elementary schools, both public and private. A Supreme Court ruling in the same year (Meyer v. Nebraska) overruled a state law prohibiting the teaching of foreign languages to elementary students. The Court’s ruling is significant for referring to languages other than English as “foreign” rather than “ethnic”; this terminology reflects a shift in ideology, where speakers of languages other than English came to be seen not as ethno-linguistic minorities, but instead as foreigners or aliens, outsiders in the United States. By the late 1930s, bilingual instruction in the United States had been virtually eliminated.

Ethnic Awareness

The 1960s brought new awareness of ethnic identity and civil rights, contributing to renewed attention to the education of language minority students. The success of a dual-language program at the Coral Way Elementary School in Miami, Florida, also fueled interest in bilingual education. Coral Way enrolled middle-class Spanish-speaking children recently arrived from Cuba, along with native English speakers, and achieved bilingualism, biliteracy, and strong academic attainment among both groups. The school received national notice, and served as a model for the establishment of other bilingual programs elsewhere in Dade County and in the Southwest.

In spite of the success of Coral Way and other dual language programs, a view emerged of bilingual education as a compensatory, remedial program for disadvantaged children. The U.S. Bilingual Education Act (BEA) of 1968 saw the role of native languages primarily as a means to teach children English. It is this “deficit” view of bilingual education, rather than a “language as resource” view, that has generally informed policies and discussions of bilingual education in the United States.

Services for language minority students grew in the 1970s. In the landmark case Lau v. Nichols, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974 on behalf of Chinese students in San Francisco that schools must make accommodations for students who do not speak English. While the decision did not specify what actions school districts had to take, subsequent guidelines developed by the Office of Civil Rights (the Lau Remedies) did describe specific evaluation and instructional methods. In New York City in the same year, Aspira, a Puerto Rican advocacy group, reached an agreement with the city’s Board of Education to provide bilingual education in classes with a specified number of students who spoke the same minority language. Nevertheless, the 1980s saw a preference for English-only classes, and a shift away from bilingual education.

Opposition Groups

Groups opposed to bilingual education, such as U.S. English, English Only, and English First, have contributed to the ideological climate. In 1998, Proposition 227 passed in California, virtually outlawing bilingual education in that state. Proponents of this law argued that teaching children in their native language served only to hold them back in their acquisition of English and therefore in their future educational success. Although a comparable initiative in Colorado failed in 2002, similar measures were approved by voters in Arizona in 2000 and Massachusetts in 2001.

In 2001, the Bilingual Education Act was replaced by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which requires states to measure outcomes for groups of students including English language learners. School districts may apply for funding for bilingual education, but the focus is on the use of the native language strictly as a means to proficiency in English. The high stakes assessments mandated by NCLB mean that English language learners will be assessed for English fluency and content knowledge every year, and that students and teachers will focus immediately and intensely on the skills measured on the tests.

In both a further setback for and a reflection of public disapproval of bilingual education, the federal government’s National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education changed its name in 2002 to expunge the term bilingual education, and is now known as the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs.

Continued Growth

Nevertheless, bilingual education programs have grown recently in the United States. The Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) reports a doubling of the number of dual-language programs between 1996 and 2006. This growth is credited to research that has consistently documented the academic value of first-language literacy as well as the effectiveness of bilingual education for both native-language and second-language speakers, a recognition of the need for multilingual citizens, and a dramatic increase in the number of English language learners in American schools.

Interest in indigenous-language bilingual programs is also growing. Title VII of NCLB authorizes and provides funds for native-language education programs for American Indian, native Hawaiian, and native Alaskan education.

International Experiences

Bilingual education is not a recent innovation. The earliest evidence of children’s schoolwork in two languages comes from cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia between 3000 and 2000 BCE, where Akkadian was spoken alongside Sumerian. In Ancient Rome, education was routinely bilingual in both Latin and Greek, setting the precedent still found most widely in the world: education takes place primarily in the language of the elite. Then, as now, it is most often the language of government and economic power that is the medium of instruction.

In many countries, the expected outcome of formal education is bilingualism or multilingualism; for example, instruction in Brunei, Nigeria, Singapore, and Taiwan is delivered in one or more national languages as well as in English, with the aim of full bilingualism and biliteracy. In Europe, bilingual education is called Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), in which the medium of instruction is students’ native language as well as an additional international language. Most European countries also provide home language support for immigrant students. While proficiency in the language of the host country is the highest priority, there is particular concern that students from other European Union member countries maintain their home language as well.

In 1951, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) considered the question of language in education, and concluded that children’s early education should take place in their mother tongue. Governments were encouraged to print textbooks and other materials in native languages, and to prepare native speakers to teach in those languages. UNESCO also recommended transitioning to a second language, to be taught gradually through the use of the first language.

The Canadian bilingual education movement is often traced to 1965, and the creation of an experimental kindergarten class in St. Lambert, Montreal, spurred by the activism of a relatively small number of English-speaking parents who wanted their children to become bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural, while maintaining cognitive and academic achievement. A distinctive feature of this program, known as immersion bilingual education, is that it involved speakers of the majority language, English, who received instruction in the minority language, French. English language arts were introduced gradually, beginning in the second grade. The success of the immersion program at St. Lambert led to the spread of this educational model in Canada, and to several European countries as well.

In the 1960s and 1970s, other countries that had previously offered education only in the majority language adopted the use of minority languages in instruction. For example, English-Welsh bilingual education became prevalent in Wales as a result of the Welsh Language Act of 1967. The new Spanish Constitution of 1978 recognized Catalan, Basque (or Euskera), and Galician as official languages in their communities, and mandated the use of those languages in schools in those regions.

In Peru, the indigenous language Quechua was recognized as an official language in 1975, leading to a Spanish-Quechua bilingual education project throughout the 1980s that was emulated elsewhere in Latin America in the 1990s. In Bolivia, where indigenous-language speakers comprise 63 percent of the population, the Bolivian Education Reform, launched in 1994, aims to transform the educational system by instituting bilingual education programs in all thirty of Bolivia’s indigenous languages.

New Zealand, which had previously banned the Maori language from schools, has endeavored to preserve the language of the indigenous Maoris since the 1970s by creating bilingual English-Maori schools, as well as schools in which Maori instruction is supplemented by limited time in English.

South Africa’s 1993 constitution explicitly recognizes language as a basic human right. Breaking with the previous view of multilingualism as a societal problem, the government now approaches linguistic diversity as a national resource. The constitution recognizes African languages as official national languages (in addition to English and Afrikaans), and schools have been charged with including the use of “own-language” instruction. Efforts are underway not only to develop and publish literature in the indigenous languages, but also to produce television broadcasting and dictionaries in these local languages.


  1. Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (4th ed.). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  2. Baker, C., & Jones, M. P. (1998). Encyclopedia of bilingualism and bilingual education. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  3. Crawford, J. (1999). Educating English learners: Language diversity in the classroom (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services.
  4. García, O. (1997). Bilingual education. In F. Coulmas (Ed.), The handbook of sociolinguistics (pp. 405–420). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  5. Hornberger, N. H. (1988). Language policy, language education, language rights: Indigenous, immigrant, and international perspectives. Language in Society 27, 439–458.

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