History of Bilingualism in the US
Despite the fact that a lot of Americans see bilingualism as a modern trend reflecting the present-day diversity of the nation, the historical perspective of the issue reveals that it has always been present in the country. The earliest settlers were not exclusively English but also German, Spanish, French, and Dutch. There is evidence that in 1664, more than 20 languages were spoken in New York alone, which implies that the majority of citizens were fluent in more than one. European languages remained popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries due to immigration, which increased dramatically in the 20th century, attracting people from all parts of the globe (Dillard, 2014). This accounts for the fact that now not only European but also Asian, African, and Arabic languages are spoken alongside English.
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Bilingual Education in the US
Initially, starting from the colonial times up to the end of the 19th century, German and French were so popular that immigrants could send their children to German- and French-speaking schools. However, with the growing number of newcomers, the attitude to bilingual education changed dramatically. The nation switched from the encouragement of voluntary assimilation to unbinding Americanization, which imposed English as the only language of instruction in educational institutions. It became a must for immigrants to speak it. After World War I, German was banned in the majority of states even as a second language (Hoffmann, 2014). Gradually, bilingualism fell out of favor even where it was commonly accepted. The situation has started to change only recently when Spanish was accepted as the first language for immigrant children in some schools. However, integration programs are still counteracted by the idea of Americanization.
The first law (The Nationality Act) related to bilingualism was passed in 1906 when Congress obliged immigrants to speak English regardless of their native language. Since then, the following legal documents have been issued (Dillard, 2014):
- Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Farrington v. Tokushige (1927);
- Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925);
- Mo Hock Ke Lok Po v. Stainback (1944);
- 1954: Brown v. Board of Education:
- Civil Rights Act of 1964;
- Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965;
- 1968 Bilingual Education Act (BEA): Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
- Bilingual Education Act of 1974;
- Lau v. Nichols (1974);
- Lau Remedies (1975);
- Serna v. Portales Municipal Schools (1974);
- Constitutional amendments (1981);
- Ron Unz’s Proposition 227 (California) (1998);
- Proposition 203 (Arizona) (2000);
- The Colorado English for the Children Initiative (2001);
- No Child Left Behind Act (2001).
Despite facing violent opposition, bilingual programs are gaining popularity. Their number has grown considerably from 260 (in 2000) to more than 2000 (in 2016). Currently, 39 states offer bilingual education. The types of programs include (Dillard, 2014):
- 50-50 two-way bilingual immersion;
- 90-10 two-way bilingual immersion;
- 50-50 one-way developmental bilingual education;
- 90-10 one-way developmental bilingual education;
- 50-50 transitional bilingual education;
- 90-10 transitional bilingual education;
- English as a second language (ESL);
- English mainstream.
Depending on the design, such programs produce different effects. Mostly, they educate students in English as an additional language. However, now, dual-language programs are also widespread. They develop biliteracy and bilingualism to make students master both languages. There are also so-called transitional programs that do not teach children their mother tongue but gradually transfer them to education in English. The greatest achievement scores are usually found in dual-language programs (Hill & Miller, 2013).
Who are English Language Learners Historically?
Historically, ELLs were ethnic minorities who were willing to participate in the social, political, and economic life of the country. In fact, they had no pressing need to speak English since they mostly lived in neighborhoods with people of the same ethnicity, where they could preserve their culture (Dillard, 2014). Yet, it was the only means for them to acquire national identity and be recognized as American citizens.
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The population of ELLs in the US
Nowadays, an increasingly diverse population has evolved across the country. The biggest concentration of ELLs is found in Southern and Western parts while in the North and in the East, the number of them is considerably lower. The majority of EELs currently dwell in Nevada, Oregon, New Mexico, California, and Colorado. In the north, the density of this population is the lowest while in the East, there are only three states (Virginia, Florida, and New York) that could rank among the country leaders in this aspect (Dillard, 2014).
Educational Achievement Gap
Despite the fact that the number of ELLs is increasing rapidly, which makes the government launch various bilingual programs, their academic underperformance persists. There is now a huge achievement gap between Caucasian students and students belonging to racial and ethnic minorities. What is even worse, this gap has been widening during the last decade. For instance, the average gap in mathematics is 34%. (Wright, 2015). Although it is believed that bilingual programs are capable of changing the situation, some specialists claim that the whole classroom environment requires transformation to achieve progress.
Relationship between Bilingual Education and Literacy
For the purpose of choosing the right approach, it is necessary to understand how literacy must be acquired. Regardless of the program, all children are taught to develop an awareness of syntax and phonology of the English language. Partially, the achievement gap appears due to the wrong assumption that developing children’s literacy in the mother tongue could hinder the acquisition of English. On the contrary, those children who show more advanced skills in their native language typically have fewer problems with English (Wright, 2015).
Challenges to Literacy
Nevertheless, there are typical challenges that most ELLs face:
- projection of grammar structures of their native language on English;
- lexical lacunas that do not exist in their language;
- a bulk of unknown vocabulary;
- the discrepancy between the sound and the sign;
- unfamiliar sentence structures;
- exceptions to rules;
- inability to differentiate between denotation and connotation;
- different measurement system;
- different formation of numbers;
- untranslatability of terms;
- fear of making a mistake;
- fear of bullying.
What is Literacy?
Besides these challenges, there is also a general problem that literacy itself is understood differently in different cultures. For some ELLs, it is limited to the ability to read. This understanding is still common in developing states. That is why it is difficult for them to write and use arithmetic. In American schools, the term has long been expanded to encompass the ability to understand technology, analyze complex contexts, and acquire a foreign language.
What are the Components of Literacy?
The key components of literacy are (August, McCardle, & Shanahan, 2014):
- oral language;
- phonological awareness;
- phonemic awareness;
- word study;
- word identification;
- number study;
- mathematical logic;
What Programs fall under Literacy?
There are numerous specific literacy programs that are aimed to teach ELL children all the enumerated literacy components. The content they have is generally the same; yet, the approach is different. There are three major types of programs classified as per their perspective (August et al., 2014):
- Creative literacy curriculum is meant to develop literacy skills in combination with their cognitive, artistic, social, technological, and other skills.
- Language-focused programs are the most suitable ones for ELL students since they take into account their linguistic barriers and focus on their elimination.
- The project approach is focused on children’s willingness to cooperate in any activity, including literacy acquisition. Thus, skills are taught in a play form and project work. The advantage of this method is that children stop being afraid of making mistakes.
Model Programs that Work
Presently, there are hundreds of literacy programs that are implemented in different states and cities. For instance, the Early Literacy and Learning Model (ELLM) is a highly successful literacy curriculum that has been specifically designed for ELLs from low-income households. Another good example is the Exemplary Model of Early Reading Growth and Excellence (EMERGE). This program relies on profound research to provide a favorable learning environment for ELLs and introduce timely interventions (Wright, 2015).
Despite the growing number of immigrants, which makes the government launch various bilingual programs, the situation with bilingual education remains rather tense. The problem is that a lot of American educators still opt in favor of Americanization, which requires immigrants to master English regardless of their native language.
Since the success of bilingual programs in American schools is rather dubious and there are still huge achievement gaps between natives and immigrants, it is essential to transform current educational practices. The history of colonization proves that it is possible for American society to accept bilingualism and multiculturalism.
August, D., McCardle, P., & Shanahan, T. (2014). Developing literacy in English language learners: Findings from a review of the experimental research. School Psychology Review, 43(4), 490-498.
Dillard, J. L. (2014). A history of American English. London, UK: Routledge.
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Hill, J. D., & Miller, K. B. (2013). Classroom instruction that works with English language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Hoffmann, C. (2014). Introduction to bilingualism. London, UK: Routledge.
Wright, W. E. (2015). Foundations for teaching English language learners: Research, theory, policy, and practice. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Incorporated.