Bilingual ed: choice or coercion?
The Christian Science Monitor --Commentary - Opinion
from the October 17, 2002 edition
By Jonathan Zimmerman
NEW YORK This fall, Massachusetts and Colorado will vote on ballot measures
requiring schools to place all non-English speakers in English-immersion
classes. California and Arizona have already passed similar measures, reversing
a 30-year-old policy of teaching science, math, and other regular subjects in
students' native languages.
All of these measures restrict parental "choice." Is that a good or a bad thing?
It depends upon whom you ask and which issue you're discussing. Republicans
denounce bilingual education but in the same breath advocate parents' choice
with school vouchers. On the other side, Democrats say "yes" to choice for
bilingual education but argue against school vouchers.
When bilingual-education advocates speak of choice, moreoever, they usually mean
their choice. For the past two decades, Hispanic parents have complained that
educators urged or even forced their children to enroll in bilingual programs.
Now with their backs against the wall, these same educators proudly proclaim the
virtues of parental selection. But would they rest easily if parents chose to
reject bilingual education?
In the 19th century, public schools offered a wide array of linguistic options
including dual-language programs, where children studied in English during half
the day and in German during the other. But World War I brought these
experiments to an abrupt halt. Amid a wave of wartime hysteria and "100-percent
Americanism," at least 14 states barred German from their schools; one state
even made it illegal to speak German on the phone. "What this nation needs is a
hundred million hard hearts toward Germany," declared one Ohio educator. "German
instruction in the schools tends to soften them."
Other languages suffered, as well. In the wake of the war, at least 21 states
passed laws restricting foreign-language instruction. Some states barred
non-English classes in primary grades; others required English as a "medium of
instruction" for all basic subjects.
Many states and school districts relaxed these restrictions in the 1920s and
1930s, allowing students to register for a broad range of foreign languages:
Czech, Italian, and Hebrew as well as German, French, and Spanish. In the
immigrant press, ethnic spokesmen urged children to take their "native"
For the most part, classes in "immigrant" languages soon melted away for lack of
students, prompting a cascade of chagrin among immigrant leaders. "Our own Czech
students seem indifferent!" a Bohemian newspaper exclaimed in Chicago in 1917,
bemoaning low-student enrollment in its "native" language. "Is this not painful,
and does it not cover us with shame?"
In fact, most immigrants didn't speak these languages at all. Italians spoke
Neapolitan or Sicilian, not classical Italian; Germans spoke "Germerican," a
fusion of German and English; and Jews spoke Yiddish, reserving Hebrew for
religious worship. Indeed, the effort to foist "pure" European languages upon
immigrants reflected its own subtle brand of linguistic coercion. Just as self-
described "100-percent Americans" tried to blot out all foreign languages,
ethnic activists urged a pristine "mother tongue" upon children who didn't share
Today, at the dawn of a new century, both types of coercion are alive and well.
The Colorado and Massachusetts measures reflect the right-wing tradition of
100-percent Americanism, requiring everybody to study in English. But many
bilingual advocates continue to engage in the leftist version of coercion,
pressing immigrants to study in their allegedly native idiom.
What if both sides agreed to let parents choose really choose their own
forms of language instruction? The right would have to renounce its new penchant
for state mandates, which obviously preclude parents from picking the bilingual
option. But the left would need to allow these citizens to select English
immersion, the bκte noire of bilingual educators for more than three decades.
If we really believed in choice, in short, we would encourage all citizens to
make their own choices about bilingual education. That would cut against a major
grain of our history, to be sure, but our destiny is still up for grabs.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at the Steinhardt School of Education, New
York University. He is the author of 'Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public
Schools' (Harvard, 2002).