Breaking Down the Monolingual Divide

don't cut off our tongues

Bilingual education has been the subject of national debate since the 1960`s, issues surrounding bilingual education have long existed in the United States.  In the past schools frequently were used to involve social issues and maintain respective linguistic and cultural heritages; the Germans for example went through extraordinary lengths to do so by using public schools, churches, etc. through the 19th century to strengthen Deutschtum or “German-ness”.

During the 1960`s and 1970`s there was a nationwide debate over bilingual education and whether or not instruction should be given in a child’s native tongue and if English should be transitional.  The federal legislation main focus was to get students to transfer into all-English speaking classrooms as quickly as possible.  The English-speaking public insisted that English should be the sole language of instruction in schools; they feared bilingualism would usher in multilingualism and attempts to preserve ethnic culture.  In contrast the non-English speaking public, particularly the Hispanic communities viewed bilingual education as a civil rights issue and as a means to obtain respect for their culture.

Many Puerto Rican and Chicano students had high drop out rates and low college admissions, the poor school performance enabled bilingual education to be considered essential.  With enough advocating, in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 passed the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (ESEA) and then in 1968 the Bilingual Education act was created.

Everyone believes the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was a court case that helped break barriers or that the Lau v Nichols (1974) Supreme Court case was the landmark for bilingual education and a case that declared students who did not speak English were entitled to education in their native tongue.  Both cases were important but the Mendez v Westminster (1946) was the pre-requisite and the trial run for the later case of the Brown v. Board of Education, the Mendez case won a class action lawsuit to dismantle the segregated school system that existed there: California was the first state to end the desegregation of schools.  The civil rights movement is not just a Black versus White issue; a civil rights movement also was very much vivid among the Latino/Hispanic population and communities.

Despite the fight for bilingual education there are supporters of an “English Movement” which is the fight to make English the official language of the United States claiming that it would unite the country and encourage immigrants to learn English quicker.  English has been the predominant language of the nation, however, despite its dominance English has never been the designated official language of the United States.  In spite of the friction government services and businesses have traditionally been able to provide services in languages other than English for the large language minorities.  In reference to the courts non-English speaking people are deemed to the rights of due process by the constitution.

Will instituting English as the official language raise serious issues concerning the Fourth and First Amendment; will it conflict with people’s freedom of speech?  By 2004, however, 28 states still have already declared English as their official language.  To counteract the “English Movement” there is an “English Plus” movement that acknowledges both the importance of English within the country and the multilingual heritage of the United States.  Advocates support the proficiency of English to be encouraged while also having non-natives to maintain their native tongue and this movement also advocates for natives and monolinguals to acquire another language.  The 2000 U.S. census found that almost 400 languages are spoken in the United States; with the variety of languages and cultures represented by the citizens of this country the English Plus movement and bilingual programs allows cultural pluralism to be fully embraced.

spanish vs english                          Being bilingual is not only an advantage but it is a piece of your own culture and identity.  To those of you who are reading this article, how many of you have family that speak another language other than English and if you do not: how many of you would like to acquire a second language?  How many of you have family or know people that have emigrated here to the United States and find themselves being pressured to assimilate and become “Americanized”.  You may need to question – who or what really defines what it is be an American?  Isn’t this the salad bowl nation that offers freedom of speech and opportunities?  I am bilingual; I embrace it and am making an effort to maintain my family’s native language while still being proficient in English.  With the tensions to assimilate and immerse into all aspects of American culture many non-natives find themselves at a crossroads’.


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