Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

History of Bilingual Education

Bilingualism in the United States 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. In 1664, the British took control of New York from the Dutch. At this time, there were 18 languages, not including Native American languages, spoken in lower Manhattan alone. No doubt, many of the inhabitants of the colony were conversant in more than two languages.

In the early days, public education in America was mainly offered in English. As the nation grew, many school districts noticed the presence of students from different national origins. These students spoke a range of languages. For instance, in the southwest, many Mexican-American children attended schools. Elsewhere, Chinese, Spanish-speaking, and other language minority students tried to fit into the predominantly English-speaking school system.

This article provides a brief overview of the history of bilingual education in America.

The Early History of Bilingual Education

German and French were common in colonial North America. Many Germans educated their children in German-language schools. Although many colonial leaders complained about bilingualism, it was generally accepted. In fact, during and after the American Revolution, bilingualism was embraced. This is evidenced by the fact that documents like the Articles of Confederation were published in both English and German.

During the 19th 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.

There was an enormous wave of immigration that began in the 1880s and lasted until the early 1920s. This 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, English was to be the language of instruction. This was true 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 reached its peak when the United States entered World War I in 1917. This caused some communities to ban the use of German in public.

By the end of the First World 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 only based on variations of immersion. Students were taught in English no matter what their native tongue was. Those who did not master English had to stay back in the same grade until they became proficient.

The Push for Equal Education

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to end segregation in public places. It banned employment discrimination on the basis of national origin. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act enabled the denial of federal funds to programs that discriminated based on race, color, or national origin. Despite these strides, non-English speaking students often faced language barriers in public schools. These barriers often prevented these minority groups from getting a meaningful education.

In San Francisco, the problem became evident and came to a head in 1974. Chinese students in the San Francisco Unified School District felt they weren't receiving an equal education. Their plight led to a landmark case, Lau v. Nichols (1974). The plaintiffs argued they were being denied a meaningful education. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. They stated the district must take steps to overcome educational barriers, including those faced by non-English speakers.

The Rise of Bilingual Education Programs

Bilingual education in America fosters the principle of equal protection. It ensures that students of all linguistic backgrounds receive the same quality of education. In response to the increasing need, the federal government introduced the Bilingual Education Act in 1968. Also known as Title VII, it was an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This act provided federal funds to educational agencies. This financial assistance was used to create bilingual education programs.

These programs were designed for students with limited English proficiency. The primary goal was to help them achieve grade-level standards. They could do so while receiving instruction in their native language. The belief was that students would transition better into English immersion afterward. They first mastered subjects in their native language.

Challenges and Changes

Despite the Bilingual Education Act, challenges persisted. In Portales, New Mexico, Spanish-speaking students faced discrimination in schools. In the Serna v. Portales (1974) case, the district court ruled for the plaintiffs. The court held that Portales Municipal Schools had to offer bilingual education and needed to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking students.

Not every state embraced bilingual education. In Arizona and other states, there was a push for English-only instruction. Advocates believed that English immersion was the fastest way for learners to adapt. These learners were called English Language Learners (ELLs).

The 1974 Equal Education Opportunities Act created more requirements. The act asserted that public schools must take steps to overcome language barriers. Yet, debates continued on the best approach. People argued over whether it should be through ESL (English as a Second Language) or transitional bilingual education. Finally, others continued to argue for English immersion.

Modern Times and the Role of Federal Policy

The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw a shift in federal policy. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), for instance, was an important federal law that aimed to ensure all students achieved academic proficiency. This included ELLs. This Act called for higher standards and more accountability, yet was met with criticism and underwent several reauthorizations. The current law is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed by President Obama in 2015.

The U.S. Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights also played pivotal roles. They helped ensure school districts took affirmative steps to meet the needs of ELLs. They have emphasized that failing to address the needs of all students could violate federal laws.

Bilingual instruction in America has a rich history. It was driven by the need to ensure that all students have equal access to public education. They are entitled to this regardless of their national origin or first language. From the school districts of Nebraska to the federal courts of appeals, the journey of bilingual education has been marked by advocacy. It has been met with challenges and continuous adaptation.

If you've encountered any sort of educational discrimination and feel as if your rights were violated, consider meeting with a civil rights attorney.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified education attorney to help you navigate education rights and laws.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options