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History of Bilingual Education

Although we tend to think of bilingualism in the United States as a modern issue, in fact it has always been a part of our history. In the early days of exploration and colonization, French, Spanish, Dutch, and German were as common as English. By 1664, the year that the British took control of New York from the Dutch, there were some 18 languages (not including the native American tongues) spoken in lower Manhattan alone. No doubt many of the inhabitants of the colony were conversant in more than two languages.

Colonial Times Through the 19th Century

German and French remained common in colonial North America. Many Germans educated their children in German-language schools. Although many colonial leaders (among them Benjamin Franklin) complained about bilingualism, it was generally accepted. In fact, during and after the American Revolution, such documents as the Articles of Confederation were published in both English and German.

During the nineteenth century millions of immigrants came to the United States and brought their languages with them. German remained popular, as did other European tongues. Spanish was introduced when the United States took possession of Texas, Florida, and California from Spain.

20th Century and Beyond 

The enormous wave of immigration that began in the 1880s and lasted until the early 1920s brought a change in sentiment toward bilingual education. The goals of voluntary assimilation were gradually replaced by strident calls for "Americanization." In Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines (which the United States had acquired after the Spanish-American War in 1898), English was to be the language of instruction even though most of these new Americans spoke no English at all. In 1906, Congress passed a law, the first language law ever passed, requiring naturalized citizens to be able to speak English. Anti-bilingual sentiment got stronger as more immigrants poured into the United States. Anti-German sentiment, which reached its peak when the United States entered World War I in 1917, caused some communities to ban the use of German in public.

By the end of the war, bilingualism had fallen out of favor even in areas where it had thrived. In 1924 strict immigration quotas sharply reduced the number of new foreigners coming into the United States. For almost the next 40 years, bilingual education in U.S. schools was almost exclusively based on variations of immersion; students were taught in English no matter what their native tongue was, and those who did not master English were required to stay back in the same grade until they became proficient.

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